Stillbirth is not necessarily murder

A homicide conviction is overturned in South Carolina.

By Lynn Harris
May 14, 2008 8:05PM (UTC)
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National Advocates for Pregnant Women has declared a major legal victory in the recent overturning of the 2001 homicide conviction and resulting imprisonment of South Carolina woman Regina McKnight. The deceased: McKnight's stillborn child, delivered at approximately 34 weeks in 1999 and later pronounced the victim of child abuse because of McKnight's use of cocaine.

As the Charlotte Observer and the Myrtle Beach News report, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled unanimously that McKnight deserves a new trial because of mistakes made by her attorneys -- mainly their failure to reintroduce medical testimony from her first trial (which ended in mistrial) suggesting that many natural causes for the stillbirth could not be ruled out. The decision stated, in other words, that lawyers had not established a beyond-reasonable-doubt connection between the stillbirth and the cocaine.


NAPW and many allies, including the South Carolina Civil Liberties Union, had been working on behalf of McKnight for 10 years. Their overarching goal, it should be noted, is not to encourage women to greet the news of pregnancy with a weeklong coke-fest.

"This decision puts Solicitors [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," said Susan K. Dunn, South Carolina co-counsel for amicus.

"Families in South Carolina are not helped by treating stillbirths as crimes," added Brandi Parrish, coordinator of the South Carolina Coalition for Healthy Families. Potentially at-risk pregnancies are also not helped by arresting pregnant women, who are thus less able to access prenatal and other required care.


"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 [Broadsheet girl crush] Lynn Paltrow, NAPW's executive director. "We hope that this puts her case and other cases like it to rest so we can focus on recovery."

Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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