Prosecutor likens 'rebirthing' session to 'torture'

The Denver Post / August 18, 2000
By Kieran Nicholson

Wrapped from head to toes in a sheet as part of a "rebirthing session," 10-year-old Candace Newmaker pleaded for help about 50 times, a Jefferson County prosecutor said Thursday in court.

Candace told four adults holding her down that she couldn't breathe and was going to die, but pressure to keep her inside the sheet was increased in a "monstrous" act "tantamount to cruel torture," Deputy District Attorney Steve Jensen said.

Therapists Connell Watkins, 53, and Julie Ponder, 40; business manager Brita St. Clair, 41; and intern Jack McDaniel, 47, were all bound over to face arraignment on the charge of reckless child abuse resulting in death. Joan Heller, Julie Ponder's attorney, told the court that her client did not "consciously disregard" Candace's safety. Ponder, who headed the session because of her experience, expected a struggle, Heller said. Candace's struggle was interpreted as the girl being uncooperative with the therapeutic session.

"No one present understood there was a risk," Heller said. Attorney Craig Truman, who represents Watkins, said later court proceedings would establish whether a crime was committed and whether his client was involved in such a crime.

Defense attorneys David Savitz and Michael Steinberg argued that their clients were not principals in the rebirthing session. The pair told County Judge Charles Hoppin that St. Clair and McDaniel had no experience in rebirthing and each had nothing to do with decisions during the session. Steinberg compared the April 18 rebirthing session at Watkins' Evergreen home to Ann Sullivan's work with Helen Keller.

"These individuals have dedicated their lives to helping children like Candace Newmaker," Steinberg said. But Jensen argued that all four heard the girl's plea for help, and no one acted to stop the session. According to Jensen, about 10 minutes into the therapy, Candace said: "Whoever is pushing on my head, it is not helping. Please stop it."

Based on videotape of the 70-minute session, which included audio, Jensen said Candace could be heard gasping for breath several times. During a 16-minute span, the girl said that she couldn't breathe seven times. She said she was going to die six times. Just short of 17 minutes into the session, Candace declared: "OK, I'm dead."

"These people chose to ignore what was obvious to anyone," Jensen said. "They all had assumed a duty to protect the child and not hurt her. They failed miserably."

The rebirthing session was part of an intensive two-week therapy that was supposed to cure Candace's "attachment disorder" toward her adoptive mother, Jeane Newmaker.

The four defendants will be arraigned on Sept. 18. Jeane Newmaker, of Durham, N.C., faces a Sept. 6 hearing on the lesser felony charge of criminal-negligence child abuse resulting in death.

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