Originally created 02/23/98

Ex-drug user fighting sentence



ANDERSON, S.C. -- A mother of four wants the U.S. Supreme Court to tell her how long she will have to pay for her addiction to crack cocaine, even though she says she has been clean since 1995.

Malissa Crawley's son was born six years ago weighing 5 pounds and 12 ounces, with crack cocaine in his bloodstream. Today, Antwon is healthy, developing normally and is keeping up with his class in school.

He's also worried his mother may soon have to go to jail for five years for using drugs while she was pregnant.

Ms. Crawley, 36, pleaded guilty in 1992 to child endangerment and was sentenced to five years in prison. The sentence was suspended, and she remained free on probation to take care of her family and participate in a drug-treatment program.

Two years later, Ms. Crawley violated her probation by getting into a fight with her boyfriend. That conviction carried a 30-day sentence, and she has not been in trouble since. But now she's facing the full five years in prison.

Ms. Crawley has some powerful groups on her side, though. The Center for Constitutional Rights has gotten involved, fighting for other women who have been sentenced to prison for using drugs while pregnant.

And a host of children's, health and medical groups, including the American Medical Association, are criticizing state Attorney General Charlie Condon's legal stance on the issue.

Attorney Lynn Paltrow is working on a similar case involving another South Carolina woman, Cornelia Whitner. Hers became a landmark case in South Carolina law in 1997 when the state Supreme Court upheld her conviction for using crack cocaine during her pregnancy. The court ruled 3-2 that a fetus is a person covered by the state's child-abuse laws, if it is old enough to live outside the mother's womb.

Last week Ms. Paltrow and Ms. Crawley's attorney, C. Rauch Wise of Greenwood, were granted an extension to appeal Ms. Whitner's case to the U.S. Supreme Court. They plan to include Ms. Crawley's case in the appeal.

Ms. Paltrow says if the goal is to protect children, as Mr. Condon says, then Ms. Crawley should not go to prison. She argued that Mr. Crawley's children, who are well-cared-for, will suffer by losing their mother.

Some national experts agree that criminal prosecution has no place in dealing with the problem. Boston Medical Center pediatrician Deborah Frank, who studies babies exposed to drugs while in the womb, said a child can suffer more by being separated from the mother than by being exposed to crack cocaine before birth.

"Certainly, one cannot claim you're helping the children by incarcerating the mother," she said. "That does nothing for the children."

Mr. Condon agrees that sending Ms. Crawley to prison is not an ideal solution. In fact, because she is doing well, he said he considered exempting Ms. Crawley from prison. But other factors forced him to put that notion aside.

According to state law, once a sentence is imposed, it cannot be modified, Mr. Condon said.

"Her situation made a sympathetic case," Mr. Condon said. "But who am I to change the law?"