The S.C. Supreme Court on Monday overturned a conviction that sent a Conway woman to prison for 12 years.
The court ruled that Regina McKnight, who was convicted in 2001 of homicide by child abuse after being accused of killing her unborn child with cocaine, must be granted a new trial.
McKnight gave birth to a stillborn, 5-pound girl May 15, 1999. The baby's age was estimated at between 34 and 37 weeks.
McKnight's first trial, in January 2001, ended in a mistrial. Four months later, a jury convicted her.
Monday's decision means that case will be remitted to the 15th Circuit Solicitor's office within 30 days, Solicitor Greg Hembree said.
C. Rauch Wise of Greenwood, one of McKnight's appellate attorneys and general counsel for the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said Monday that he was delighted about he ruling. He said he would seek to have his client released on bail pending a new trial.
In January 2003, the S.C. Supreme Court upheld McKnight's conviction. The U.S. Supreme Court then refused to hear her case.
"The groups got involved because there is complete consensus that prosecuting pregnant women is bad for mothers and babies," said Lynn Paltrow, with the National Advocates for Pregnant Women. "Regina McKnight was convicted on junk science and was not fairly represented at trial."
The decision by the Supreme Court agreed there was no clear connection between the baby's death and the mother's use of cocaine.
The opinion also said that jurors should have been told about other ways children could die as a result of child abuse.
"Although not listed as a cause of death on the autopsy report, McKnight had a history of syphilis, which has been known to result in stillbirth," according to the opinion.
The opinion also said that McKnight's public defender worked 200 cases and a death-penalty trial during the time period between McKnight's two trials.
"Today's ruling focused on the question of whether Ms. McKnight received a fair trial and concluded that Ms. McKnight's counsel was ineffective in her preparation of McKnight's defense through expert testimony and cross-examination," Paltrow said.
Susan Dunn, another attorney who represented McKnight said, "Significantly, the opinion acknowledges that current research simply does not support the assumption that prenatal exposure to cocaine results in harm to the fetus, and the opinion makes clear that it is certainly no more harmful to a fetus than nicotine use, poor nutrition, lack of prenatal care, or other conditions commonly associated with the urban poor."
"This decision puts prosecutors across the state on notice that they must actually prove that an illegal drug has risked or caused harm, not simply rely on prejudice and medical misinformation," she said.
Hembree, whose office prosecuted McKnight, said the S.C. Supreme Court's decision doesn't change any facts of the case.
He said he was a little surprised by the ruling because there are good lawyers on the other side.
He said his office will need to evaluate where they are, what position they are in at that point, and if there are any changes that need to be considered.
Meanwhile, McKnight would remain in prison and may be given a bond pending a new trial, he said.
At least 90 women accused of using drugs while pregnant have been prosecuted in the state through the end of 2005, according to National Advocates for Pregnant Women, a nonprofit organization that favors treatment over prosecution for drug-addicted pregnant women.
A similar case happened in Georgetown County. Jamie Lynn Burroughs was indicted on murder charges last year by a Georgetown grand jury, after authorities said her drug use contributed to the death of her unborn child.
Hembree said he thinks that case is still pending as the Charleston County Solicitor's Office is handling the case.
He said Monday's ruling on McKnight was so "case specific" that it should not have any impact on cases like Burroughs'.
The ruling was targeted toward the trial lawyers' failure of handling the case specifically, not looking at an overall statue, Hembree said.
May 13, 2008 -- Charlotte Observer (NC)
Woman Wins A New Trial In Baby's Death
Unanimous Ruling Finds Attorneys Erred in Case That Ended in Conviction
By Meg Kinnard, Associated Press
A South Carolina woman convicted of homicide after her stillborn baby tested positive for cocaine should get a new trial because of mistakes her attorneys made, the state Supreme Court ruled Monday.
Attorneys for Regina McKnight did not introduce the baby's autopsy report into evidence and failed to rebut the prosecution's medical expert, the court said in the unanimous decision.
A spokesman for the state attorney general's office said he didn't immediately know whether prosecutors would appeal. They have 15 days to decide.
McKnight, 31, was convicted in May 2001 and sentenced to 12 years in prison after her second trial. Her first trial ended in a mistrial when the judge found out that two jurors had looked up medical information on the Internet.
The justices said in Monday's ruling that a medical witness who testified in the first trial should have been called during the second.
During the initial trial, a cardiac pathologist rebutted the prosecution's medical expert and said that cocaine was "not as dangerous as the medical community once believed," Chief Justice Jean Toal wrote in overturning McKnight's conviction. Toal also noted that the doctor testified that several natural causes for the baby's death could not be ruled out.
McKnight's attorneys chose not to call that doctor or "any other expert to rebut or discredit the medical studies cited by the State's experts," Toal wrote. McKnight's attorney also never thought to use a videotape of the doctor's previous testimony, according to the ruling.
McKnight's attorney Rauch Wise said he is glad the justices agreed with his argument that prosecutors should have to do more than bring on experts to say what the child couldn't have died from.
"You have to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. They should have to be able to show the metabolized cocaine caused the death, not just rule out other factors," Wise said.
Wise visited McKnight in prison Monday to give her the news. "She is very happy to know her long ordeal may soon be over," Wise said.
Since McKnight's conviction, several national advocacy groups have supported her appeals.
"Justice is a constant struggle, and low-income pregnant women of color who have drug problems are always going to be an easy political target," said Lynn Paltrow of National Advocates for Pregnant Women. "We hope that this puts her case and other cases like it to rest so we can focus on recovery."
We are careful not to duplicate the efforts of other organizations, and as a grassroots coalition of prisoners and social reformers, our resources (time and money) are limited. The vast expertise and scope of the various drug reform organizations will enable you to stay informed on the ever-changing, many-faceted aspects of the movement. Our colleagues in reform also give the latest drug war news. Please check their websites often.