Three members of a religious sect are accused of starving to death the sect leader's infant son, calling it ''God's will.'' But legal experts say defending the trio on the grounds of religious freedom would be troublesome.
Lawyers who have represented other parents who have made medical decisions based on religion and then seen their children die said legally protected religious freedoms were not meant to shield people accused of abusing a child.
''When somebody is advocating something that involves the death or serious injury of somebody else, they're not talking about religious liberty, they're talking about lawlessness,'' said Jordan Lorence, a Fairfax, Va.-based attorney who has defended other parents who made medical decisions on religious grounds.
Three sect members pleaded innocent Tuesday at an arraignment in Fall River Superior Court. Sect leader Jacques Robidoux was charged with first-degree murder for allegedly ''directing the systematic withholding of nourishment'' from his son, 10-month-old Samuel, who died in April 1999 just before his first birthday.
His wife, Karen Robidoux, was charged with second-degree murder, and his sister, Michelle Robidoux Mingo, was charged as an accessory before the fact to assault and battery on a child.
Bail was set by Judge John A. Tierney at $500,000 cash for Jacques Robidoux, $100,000 cash for Karen Robidoux and $50,000 cash for Mingo. It was only in the past week that the three members of the sect, which does not recognize the authority of the legal system, began accepting help from lawyers.
''She accepted me as her attorney,'' said Robert Jubinville, a private attorney who met with his client, Karen Robidoux, for the first time just minutes before the hearing.
''Obviously, she has never been charged with second-degree murder. It certainly changes the stakes for her a great deal,'' Jubinville said. ''One would be foolish to go into that process without a lawyer.''
Jubinville and Francis O'Boy, Jacques Robidoux's attorney, said their defenses may eventually include arguments on grounds of religious freedom. ''The religious part of it does raise with it some defenses that could be argued,'' Jubinville said.
But past cases and experts suggested such a defense would be hard to manage. ''As a practical matter, it's a difficult way to go,'' said John Reinstein of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which has been involved in tangential elements of the case but will not be involved in this part of the case.
In 1944, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a Massachusetts case that parents may ''be martyrs themselves,'' but they may not deny treatment to their children.
In 1993, the state's Supreme Judicial Court overturned the involuntary manslaughter convictions of Christian Scientists David and Ginger Twitchell on a technicality, but the ruling made it easier for the state to prosecute parents for harming their children.
The Twitchells had been convicted of involuntary manslaughter in 1990 for the death of their 2-year-old son, Robyn, who died of a surgically treatable bowel obstruction. Rikki Klieman, who represented the Twitchells, said the two cases aren't comparable.
''It is inconceivable to me that a parent could starve their child to death and watch the child die, and I think it's the kind of case where law enforcement has to step in and go forward,'' she said.
The ACLU's Reinstein, who also was involved in the Twitchell case, said he believed prosecutors over-charged the sect members. The indictment alleges that Jacques Robidoux met the first-degree murder standards of premeditation and ''extreme atrocity and cruelty.''
''I think it will be a difficult case in which to get a first-degree murder conviction,'' he said, referring to the case against Robidoux. ''First-degree murder in the case of a child usually involves the use of violence.''
O'Boy and Jubinville said prosecutors had exaggerated the case against their clients. ''From what I've heard from press conferences they've had weekly here, we don't have a murder case here,'' Jubinville said. ''We have a manslaughter charge at best.''