“This Isn’t Speedy or Fair”

Lauren Smith’s Waited Over Four Years for Her Day in Court

March 19, 20248 Minutes

By Neda Toloui-Semnani


Four months ago, I wrote in this space about Lauren Smith, a 32-year-old mother who lost custody of her youngest child in 2019 after she and her infant tested positive for THC, a cannabinoid substance, at delivery. Smith was arrested six months later and charged with felony child neglect for using marijuana while pregnant—a charge which, in Greenville, South Carolina, carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison. 

When we published the article, Smith’s trial date was set for the week of February 19, 2024, which was, rather poetically, five years nearly to the day after she had delivered and lost custody of her youngest daughter. The child has been living with her paternal grandmother since she was three days old. 

But weeks before the trial was set to start, Smith learned her court date would be pushed for a third time. It is now scheduled for the week of April 22. 

“Isn’t everybody due a speedy, fair trial?” Smith told me earlier this month. “This isn’t speedy or fair.”

The latest holdup comes after the Greenville County solicitor’s office entered more than 125 pages of new documentation into discovery. This is called a “document dump,” a legal maneuver in which one side enters hundreds, sometimes thousands, of pages of new documentation within weeks of trial in an effort to overwhelm the opposing side. (This is the second time the prosecution has used this delay tactic. The first was last May when they entered several hundred additional pages of documentation as discovery.)

Despite the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing the right to a fast trial, Stuart Sarratt, a former Greenville County public defender familiar with the Smith case, says, “South Carolina essentially does not have any kind of right to speedy trial.” 

“We do on paper, but our Supreme Court has interpreted it as basically unless it’s been four-plus years, they’re not going to do anything about it,” he explains. “And really, you have to be in jail for them to really care about it.” 

Smith has been awaiting trial for more than four and a half years. The Meteor’s requests for comment from the Greenville County solicitor’s office have gone unanswered.

Smith’s son Aiden with his older sister. (Image via The Meteor)

However, most South Carolinians—including the state’s Attorney General, Alan Wilson, a Republican—agree that the state’s judicial system is buckling under the weight of an extraordinary judicial backlog. Wilson is asking state lawmakers to expand his budget by $1.6 million dollars to help tackle the pile of serious criminal cases, including murders, that have been languishing for years. Against the backdrop of that backlog, state prosecutors, called solicitors, have a great deal of power over which cases make the trial docket. In Smith’s case, the prosecution proposed the trial date months in advance—but then introduced new documents within weeks of that date. 

It is unclear what the prosecution hopes to prove with the entry of these documents, but they include medical records for Smith’s child. The Meteor has reviewed these records, which document her doctors’ visits from birth to the present; the most recent show that she was referred to and evaluated by an occupational therapist, who conducted a test to measure the child’s fine gross and fine motor skills—skills like grip on a spoon, object manipulation, physical reflexes, and other developmental milestones. 

Advocates for parents like Smith have concerns about bringing records so long after pregnancy into a case. “The idea that your pregnancy-related conduct could be litigated when the kid is five or six,  because, by some measure, they might not be hitting their milestones, feels so deeply problematic to me and not vested in any sort of understanding of causation versus correlation,” said Dana Sussman, the deputy executive director of Pregnancy Justice, a nonprofit who advocates for pregnant people caught in the criminal justice system. 

The Meteor spoke to three occupational therapists, all of whom agreed that evaluations like the one listed above cannot diagnose why a child’s motor skills have progressed or been delayed.

“Children don’t meet milestones for all sorts of reasons and for no reasons at all,” Sussman  notes. “I don’t think we know of a case right now that we’re working on that involves allegations that developmental milestones are not being hit, and therefore the mother deserves to be criminalized.” 

As reported in the original piece, all American medical associations recommend abstaining from using cannabis and/or cannabinoid products during pregnancy and while breastfeeding, but the precise impact of marijuana use during pregnancy on the fetus and the child is both uncertain and under-researched. As outlined in the original story, Smith’s case is closely tied to the legal theory of fetal personhood and the ways the government is increasingly policing pregnant bodies (see the Alabama Supreme Court’s ruling on I.V.F. and so-called extrauterine children).

While Smith has been waiting for her day in court, she says, she’s been working at a nursing home and living with her mother and two older children. She tells The Meteor she hasn’t been allowed to see her youngest daughter since early November. 

“This is half of a decade now of this back and forth, almost five years, and it’s just been continued and continued and continued,” Smith says. 

Still, when asked where she sees herself in five years, she says her work with senior citizens, people who are at the end of their lives and have a long view of life, has given her both perspective and confidence. She plans to be a registered nurse.