Court upholds conviction in 'rebirthing' death

Denver Post/August 29, 2003
By Howard Pankratz

The Colorado Court of Appeals on Thursday upheld the conviction and sentence of psychotherapist Connell Jane Watkins in the "rebirthing" death of 10-year-old Candace Newmaker in April 2000.

The child suffocated during a 70-minute rebirthing session, part of a two-week intensive program that was supposed to help her bond with her adoptive mother, Jeane Newmaker.

During the session, she was wrapped in a sheet, with pillows placed on top of her.

The unanimous opinion rejected contentions by Watkins that she wasn't able to present crucial evidence during the trial that might have led to a not-guilty verdict.

Judge Robert Kapelke noted that during the trial, prosecution experts called the controversial rebirthing therapy "cruel," "shocking" and "torture," and characterized it as a "pseudo-treatment" done by "the fringe elements in the mental-health profession."

But to counter those opinions, Watkins was able to present testimony about other instances of rebirthing and the safety and effectiveness of rebirthing therapy, the court said.

Kapelke said the additional testimony Watkins claimed should have been allowed involved another type of therapy called "holding therapy." But the opinion said that testimony was irrelevant.

"We agree with the trial court that the effectiveness of that type of therapy on prior occasions was not relevant to the issue whether (Watkins) acted recklessly in conducting the rebirthing therapy at issue here," Kapelke wrote.

Watkins was convicted of reckless child abuse resulting in death in April 2001 and two months later was sentenced to 16 years in prison, the shortest term that could be imposed.

Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar applauded the decision.

"The court ... simply affirmed that adults are responsible for their criminal recklessness when caring for a child, regardless of whether it is called 'therapy' or some other form of unusual care or treatment," Salazar said.

Watkins' appellate lawyer, Jean Dubofsky, said she was unsure whether the case would be appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court.

"I'm disappointed; I would have liked to have won," Dubofsky said.

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