Law School Case Brief
Whitner v. State - 328 S.C. 1, 492 S.E.2d 777 (1997)
In interpreting a statute, the court's primary function is to ascertain the intent of the legislature. Where a statute is complete, plain, and unambiguous, legislative intent must be determined from the language of the statute itself. The court should consider, however, not merely the language of the particular clause being construed, but the word and its meaning in conjunction with the purpose of the whole statute and the policy of the law. There is a basic presumption that the legislature has knowledge of previous legislation as well as of judicial decisions construing that legislation when later statutes are enacted concerning related subjects.
On April 20, 1992, Cornelia Whitner (Whitner) pled guilty to criminal child neglect pursuant to S.C. Code Ann. § 20-7-50 for causing her baby to be born with cocaine metabolites in its system by reason of Whitner's ingestion of crack cocaine during the third trimester of her pregnancy. The circuit court judge sentenced Whitner to eight years in prison. Whitner did not appeal her conviction. Thereafter, Whitner filed a petition for Post-Conviction Relief (PCR), pleading the circuit court's lack of subject matter jurisdiction to accept her guilty plea as well as ineffective assistance of counsel. Her claim of ineffective assistance of counsel was based upon her lawyer's failure to advise her that the statute under which she was being prosecuted might not apply to prenatal drug use. The petition was granted on both grounds. The State appealed and argued the court erred in finding the sentencing court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to accept the plea, and that Whitner received ineffective assistance of counsel.
Did the court err in its decision to grant the PCR?
The state supreme court held that the grant of the PCR was improper, that the sentencing court had jurisdiction over the subject matter and that Whitner received effective assistance of counsel. The court explained that for the sentencing court to have had subject matter jurisdiction to accept Whitner's plea, criminal child neglect under § 20-7-50 had include an expectant mother's use of crack cocaine after the fetus was viable. The supreme court held that both statutory language and case law compelled the conclusion that a viable fetus was a person for the purposes of the code. The court further held that the failure of Whitner's lawyer to advise her of the statute's inapplicability did not constitute deficient performance. In fact, the Court noted that both the unambiguous language of the statute and the Court's prior case law justified counsel's belief that the child neglect statute applied to Whitner's actions. Therefore, the Court held that the PCR court erred in ruling Whitner received ineffective assistance of counsel.
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