Cases Decided

— Lyn Stoesen, News Staff


Decisions have been reached in two legal cases for which NASW filed friend-of-the-court briefs, both favoring NASW's positions.

The South Carolina Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a woman prosecuted for child abuse for continuing her pregnancy while abusing cocaine and delivering a stillborn infant. In North Carolina, an appeals court upheld a decision that awarded joint custody of a child to two women, former partners, who had been raising the child.

South Carolina

In the case McKnight v. South Carolina, Regina McKnight was convicted of homicide and sentenced to 20 years for the stillbirth of her child. The case was previously challenged on the constitutionality of using homicide statutes to prosecute women who experience stillbirths; the state Supreme Court upheld the conviction.

A post-conviction challenge filed several years later addressed whether McKnight had a fair trial, focusing on whether she had insufficient counsel. In May, the state Supreme Court ruled that she did not have a fair trial and overturned the conviction. NASW filed briefs in both legal proceedings against the conviction.

NASW's most recent brief argued that McKnight's trial counsel failed to present to the jury appropriate medical and scientific evidence and provided insufficient counsel. It was noted at the outset of the brief that NASW and the other health-related organizations on the brief "do not endorse the non-medical use of drugs — including alcohol or tobacco — during pregnancy, by either parents. Nor do amici contend that there are no health risks associated with cocaine (or other drug or alcohol) use during pregnancy.

"The conviction in this case is based on a controversial interpretation of law that is contrary to the recommendations of every leading medical group," the brief stated. "To allow this conviction to stand in spite of the constitutionally deficient performance by trial counsel will send a dangerous message to pregnant women throughout the state.

"Women will be even less likely to seek prenatal care and to disclose health problems to their health care providers, if they are fearful that they will not only be prosecuted if they fail to guarantee a healthy pregnancy outcome, but that they will also have no guarantee of effective assistances of counsel and a fair trial," the brief continued.

In its decision, the court agreed that "counsel was ineffective in her preparation of McKnight's defense through expert testimony and cross-examination . . . in calling an expert witness whose testimony undermined the defense and in failing to call an expert witness whose testimony supported the defense . . . in failing to investigate medical evidence and contradicting the state's experts' testimony on the link between cocaine and stillbirth . . . in failing to object to the trial court's charge on the measure of criminal intent required for conviction under the Homicide by Child Abuse statute . . . [and] for failing to introduce the autopsy report into evidence."

North Carolina

In the case Mason v. Dwinnell, NASW and its North Carolina Chapter argued that custody rights should be granted to gay and lesbian "psychological parents" when in the best interest of the child. In May, the Court of Appeals of North Carolina affirmed the trial court's award of joint custody of a child to former partners Joellen Mason and Irene Dwinnell.

In the decision, the court concluded that "although this appeal arises in the context of a same-sex domestic partnership, it involves only the constitutional standards applicable to all custody disputes between legal parents and third parties" and that a district court had "properly concluded it should apply the 'best interest of the child' standard" in the case.

In its brief, NASW argued that "a large number of children are currently being raised by gay and lesbian same-sex couples. Many of these gay and lesbian parents lack a biological or legal connection to their children, but nevertheless function on every level as genuine parents to their children."

Read more on the Amicus Brief Database.