A 39-year-old mother, from Campobello, South Carolina, was convicted of causing the death of her 6-week- old child and was sentenced this past Friday to 20 years in a prison-the minimum sentence the judge could impose under South Carolina Law for this type of offense. The state proved that Stephanie Greene was using medications containing morphine which were passed to her child through breast milk in sufficient quantity to cause the child’s death; the child died on November 13th, 2010 in the early morning hours. Greene was purportedly using medications and concealing this fact from her physicians and relying on her research as to the safety of such practices. Greene had lost her nursing license in 2004. Reports indicate that she had been involved in a near-fatal car accident some ten years ago and suffered from significant pain.
COMMENT: The case has sparked controversy in South Carolina owing to the state’s laws permitting prosecution over harm caused by a mother to a fetus; although the victim, in this case, was 6-weeks-old at the time of death, issues about the legal definition of a “person” is relevant. The South Carolina Supreme Court has held that a woman can be prosecuted under the state’s child abuse laws where the victim is a fetus drawing analogies to cases where one is charged with stabbing a fetus. The case of Whitner v. South Carolina, involved a woman charged with passing a quantity of cocaine metabolites to her child through breastfeeding. The United States Supreme Court refused to review the case in 1998. Because various states disagree over the meaning of what a “person” is, and the application of the definition to criminal prosecutions pertaining to child (person) abuse matters, many people are waiting for a definitive ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court on this issue. Apart from the legal definitions, and jurisdictional status of a fetus, such cases also present proof problems; the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the mother is the source of the drug which caused the death of the “person.”