(CNSNews.com) - When a crack-addicted South Carolina woman delivered her stillborn baby almost 4-years ago, state prosecutors fought to convict Regina McKnight of homicide by child abuse...in the womb. The S.C. Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of a lower court's 2001 guilty verdict against McKnight last week.
McKnight was eight-and-a-half months pregnant when she delivered her 5-pound stillborn baby girl in May 1999. In 2001, a jury convicted her of killing her unborn child by smoking crack cocaine throughout her pregnancy. She was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Supporters of McKnight, who is black, claimed that the jury was biased against her because there was only one black juror. The jury reportedly deliberated for 15 minutes prior to issuing the homicide verdict in 2001.
An appeal before the S.C. Supreme Court last week yielded a 3-2 ruling against McKnight. The three justices upheld an earlier ruling that said an unborn child who can survive on its own outside the womb is a legal person under the state's child abuse and neglect laws.
"Given the fact that it is public knowledge that usage of cocaine is potentially fatal, we find the fact that McKnight took cocaine knowing she was pregnant was sufficient evidence to submit to the jury on whether she acted with extreme indifference to her child's life," the justices stated in their opinion.
The two dissenting justices argued that the state's lawmakers never intended to apply homicide charges to criminal cases involving pregnant women whose "fetuses" had died.
They reportedly noted that McKnight's 12-year incarceration was much more severe than punishments assigned to women convicted of having illegal late-term abortions. Those women only face a maximum two-year prison sentence, they said.
"What (Monday's ruling) says is that the first and only response to people with addiction problems is costly punishment," McKnight's lawyer, Lynn Paltrow, told The State. She added that no other state has attempted to prosecute similar cases over the past five years.
Planned Parenthood of South Carolina (PPSC) shared Paltrow's sentiments, warning that the state now has a legal precedent to criminalize drug-addicted women who become pregnant.
In an interview with the Myrtle Beach Sun News, Planned Parenthood of South Carolina (PPSC) Director Chris Jueschke said the verdict would "send the message to women suffering from drug addiction that if they get pregnant, their only choice is to have an abortion or go to jail."
Conservatives applauded the three justices who upheld McKnight's conviction because of the powerful pro-life implications attached to it.
"I think it's very clear that the South Carolina State Supreme Court has said that this young lady is guilty of homicide and has sentenced her to twelve years in prison," said
Reverend Lou Sheldon, founder and chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition.
"I think it further shows the implication that life begins at conception, and this can very well spill over into other kinds of abuses such as alcohol and tobacco."
Wendy Wright, senior policy director with Concerned Women for America, hopes the punishment upheld against McKnight will influence pregnant women to take responsibility for themselves and their unborn children.
"This is a landmark ruling because it does recognize that an unborn child is a human being who deserves protection, particularly protection from her mother," said Wright. "Of all people that we would expect to try and nurture and care for a child is the mother."
According to Wright, the S.C. Supreme Court and a jury recognized that McKnight intentionally harmed herself and her unborn child by smoking crack cocaine throughout her pregnancy.
"By taking an illegal drug, she not only was harming herself - which the law recognizes as being an illegal act - but also ended up hurting an innocent human being," Wright said. "That other human being died because of her choices, because of her illegal actions."
Wright is hopeful that McKnight's example will send a strong message to other pregnant women that may be addicted or tempted to abuse illegal drugs while carrying their unborn children. She hopes the reality of a 12-year jail term will be a strong enough deterrent to make at-risk women think twice.
"This is very heartening to see that this unborn child is being recognized in the eyes of the law. I hope that this can be extended in other cases," Wright said.
"More importantly, that women will recognize that they do have a duty and responsibility to their unborn child."
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