Parents convicted in death of diabetic daughter

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/November 29, 2000
By Tom Gibb

Hollidaysburg, Pa. -- For whatever else it might do, prayer and anointing couldn't control the runaway diabetes that killed Altoona teen-ager Shannon Nixon four years ago, three days shy of her 17th birthday.

It was her parents' responsibility to get her medical help even if they shunned it themselves in favor of faith healing, the state Supreme Court said in a decision released yesterday.

Because they didn't, the court decided, a Blair County jury's 1997 verdict stands. Dennis and Lorie Nixon -- who had already lost another of their 13 children to a condition that medicine could have cured -- are guilty of involuntary manslaughter and endangering the welfare of a child.

With that comes 2 1/2 to five years in a state prison, a sentence that has remained on hold during three years of appeals and likely will remain so during an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"I know Dennis Nixon. ... He's not a Charlie Manson," William Haberstroh, the former Blair County district attorney who prosecuted the case, said yesterday. "But Shannon Nixon is dead, and Shannon Nixon should not be dead.

These two people have to learn, somebody has to convince them that [their church] isn't the last word. The last word is the law."

Defense lawyer Robert Stewart of Pittsburgh said that an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, probably after the first of the year, was almost assured, although he conceded it was unlikely the justices would agree to hear the case. "We're not optimistic," Stewart said yesterday. "Its a very uphill battle." But the Nixons also could relaunch the case at the federal district court level, District Attorney David Gorman said.

"I think it's going to be a long time before the Nixons go to prison," he predicted.

The Nixons are part of the 140-member Faith Tabernacle Congregation in Altoona, a low-profile, 50-year-old church of which Dennis Nixon's father is the pastor. Its children are educated in the church school, where they are taught to place their complete trust in God's will and embrace faith healing over medicine.

In 1991, the Nixons' son, Clayton, 8, died of an ear infection that could have been cured by antibiotics, doctors said. Dennis and Lorie Nixon pleaded no contest to endangering the welfare of a child and were sentenced to 125 hours of community service.

Shannon Nixon died of diabetes acidosis -- a treatable condition that sent her blood sugar levels rocketing to more than 12 times normal levels.

She opted for prayer, at one point, telling her parents, "I feel I had my victory" -- but later lapsed into a coma.

The first medical professional to see her was the county coroner, who had been summoned by the funeral director the Nixons called after their daughter died.

In their appeal to the state Supreme Court, the Nixons' attorneys sought to invoke the "mature minor doctrine," suggesting that Shannon Nixon had the wherewithal to make her own medical decisions.

But in the majority decision, Justice Stephen Zappala rejected cases from other states in favor of Pennsylvania legislation giving medical consent to anyone who is 18 or older, a high school graduate, married or pregnant. In a concurring opinion, Justice Ralph Cappy entertained the mature minor doctrine, but wrote, "It is evident that Shannon Nixon did not have the maturity to make an informed decision regarding medical treatment." As for Shannon Nixon's right to privacy, it "did not relieve her parents from fulfilling their statutory obligations," Zappala wrote.

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