The Oregon Supreme Court has upheld the 2011 conviction of Dale and Shannon Hickman on charges of second-degree manslaughter after the couple, members of the controversial faith-healing Followers of Christ Church, refused to get medical help for their premature newborn, who fell ill after a home birth.
Instead of seeking medical help, the couple prayed and rubbed oil on the head of the newborn, who died after nine hours of life.
The Hickmans, both 30-years-old, were sentenced in 2011 to serve six years each in prison after their conviction on charges of manslaughter for the death of their son.
Last week, Oregon State Supreme Court Judge Virginia Linder upheld the 2011 ruling. This means that the couple would have to serve the rest of their sentence and will not be released from prison before January 29, 2018, according to the Court News Service.
The couple had appealed the 2011 conviction, with their attorneys arguing that the prosecution was unable to prove that the couple realized that their religious faith practice would cause their baby’s death.
The defense attorneys argued that there was no convincing evidence that medical care would have saved the life of the baby who weighed less than four pounds at birth. According to their lawyers, the Hickmans did not know that the child was ill until it was too late to act to save his life.
The defense attorneys also argued that the Oregon Constitution provided the protection of freedom of religion.
But the argument by the prosecution that the infection was treatable and the death of the child preventable swayed the courts.
Judge Linder agreed with the prosecution that the couple could have done more to save their son’s life, and that thus they were guilty of an act of “criminal negligence.”
Oregon State Medical Examiner’s office determined that the newborn died of staphylococcus pneumonia within hours of home birth in 2009. David was born with bacterial infection in his underdeveloped lungs and died after having breathing difficulties.
Experts who testified in court said the baby died because the Hickmans refused to call 911 or take him to the hospital, although they could see that he was ill. An expert testifying in court estimated that he “would have had a 99 percent chance of survival” had the parents sought medical help.
In his 2011 decision, Judge Robert Herndon said, “As the evidence unfolded and the witnesses testified, it became evident to me and certainly to the jury… that this death just simply did not need to occur.”
In her decision, Judge Linder noted that “both of them testified that, looking back on David’s death, they would not have done anything differently.”
The couple appeared to show no signs of contrition during the trial in 2011, insisting that they did not regret their action and that “they would not have done anything differently.”
Dale Hickman told the court during the trial that he was unable to call 911 because he was praying at the time. He said he and his wife acted in accordance with church teaching and that they never considered taking their child to the hospital.
Shannon Hickman said church rules compelled her to go along with her husband’s decision. But she implied that she was not forced to act against her will, adding, “I think it’s God’s will whatever happens.”
She told the court, “We do what the Bible tells us, and we put God first and ask for faith. If we don’t have the faith, then we seek medical treatment because it is not there, you know.”
Members of the Followers of Christ church are encouraged to shun traditional medical care and rely instead on prayer, anointing, and laying of hands to cure illnesses.
The strong belief brought the group to public attention after several cases in which young children of church members died due to refusal of their parents to seek medical care, relying instead on prayer and anointing.
Multiple cases of preventable juvenile deaths due to church members shunning medical care on religious grounds forced the state legislature to strike down laws granting exemptions on religious grounds in cases of child abuse and neglect. This made it possible for prosecutors to push for manslaughter and murder convictions in faith healing-related neglect of children’s health.
The decision by Judge Linder thus renews the warning to faith-healing church members that the authorities would not accept religious freedom plea as excuse in cases of preventable infant death.
According to prosecutor Mike Reagan, the latest decision sends a strong message that the law would not accept religious beliefs as excuse for child abuse.
Prosecutor Mike Reagan, said, “These generally are good, decent, law-abiding folks, except in this one narrow area of their lives, one where they have told us stubbornly and arrogantly that ‘We are not going to change.’ [But] The law of civil society demands that they change. It demands that we sent a message to all of them that whether you believe this or not in Oregon, you cannot act upon that belief.”
This is not the first time that members of the church, based in Oregon and Idaho, have been found guilty of criminal negligence for refusing to provide medical care for their children on religious grounds. In 2009, Timothy and Rebecca Wyland refused to take their daughter, Alayna, to the hospital despite a massive tumor that threaded her left eye. The couple was found guilty of felony criminal mistreatment and sentenced to three months in jail.
As the Daily Beast notes, the Hickmans would have escaped conviction in other U.S. jurisdictions. The news site quotes a report by the National District Attorneys Association (NDAA) which notes that, in 39 states and the District of Columbia, “laws providing that parents or caretakers who fail to provide medical assistance to a child because of their religious beliefs are not criminally liable for harm to the child.”
In Idaho, for instance, the law states that parents who chose “for his child treatment by prayer or spiritual means alone shall not for that reason alone be construed to have violated the duty of care to such child.”
Concerns are being expressed about the rights of young children in U.S. jurisdictions where existing laws protect parents who refuse to provide medical care to children on religious grounds, even where the lives of the children are threatened by illness.
Recent investigations have revealed disturbing cases of children buried in Boise, Idaho, who may have died of treatable illnesses because their faith-healing parents refused to seek medical treatment for their children.
Medical associations across the country are currently engaged in a campaign to repeal religious exemption provisions, allowing parents to refuse medical treatment for their children on religious grounds.
[Image; KATU Communities / YouTube]