Judge orders religious sect couple back to jail

Rebecca A. and David P. Corneau continue to refuse the court's demands to provide their baby or proof of the remains of the fetus they say was miscarried.

Providence Journal/March 15, 2002

Attleboro -- A Juvenile Court judge yesterday sent two Attleboro religious sect members back to jail until April 10 for continuing to refuse to cooperate with the court.

Rebecca A. and David P. Corneau have been jailed since Feb. 5 on contempt charges for refusing to either surrender what authorities say is a baby that was born late last year or to say what happened to the remains of a fetus that resulted from a miscarriage around November.

The Corneaus offered neither yesterday, but their lawyer asked Judge Kenneth P. Nasif to free them anyway.

Lawyer J.W. Carney Jr. said that Nasif should accept the Corneaus' testimony that Rebecca Corneau suffered a miscarriage. "Your honor knows ... that David and Rebecca have never lied when they have spoken. They have never not told the truth," Carney told Nasif. "It's very important to them, your honor, that they do tell the truth.

Right now, your honor, they are at peace because they know they did tell the truth."

But, Nasif noted, until the Corneaus testified about the miscarriage at a Feb. 5 hearing, they had never said much of substance in court.

"The real problem is they've never spoken," Nasif said from the bench. "Perhaps they haven't had the opportunity to misspeak or not tell the truth."

After the hearing, a spokeswoman for the Department of Social Services, which is seeking temporary custody of the Corneaus' baby, said she was not sure the Corneaus have always been truthful. "There are inconsistencies in the stories that we were hearing in January and the stories we're hearing today," said Carol Yelverton.

In January, based in part on the testimony of neighbors who said Rebecca Corneau had looked pregnant and appeared to be in labor around Thanksgiving as family members led her to a van, Nasif ruled that a live baby had been born. That was not contradicted until Feb. 5, when the Corneaus testified about the miscarriage at a hearing in which they faced surrendering their baby or going to jail.

During yesterday's hearing, Carney noted that a judge can hold a person in jail on contempt charges only if the judge thinks confinement will persuade the person to cooperate with the court.

Carney said that sect members have readily demonstrated they are willing to sit in jail rather than compromise their religious beliefs. "Holding someone in prison has never changed anyone's mind, ever," said Carney.

But that may not be the case. David Corneau changed his mind about invoking his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination after spending three months in jail in 2000.

As a grand jury was investigating the deaths of two babies, sect member after sect member was sent to jail on contempt charges for efusing to either testify before the grand jury or invoke their Fifth Amendment rights. Sect members reportedly told a judge that they could not acknowledge the authority of the court system, which, they said, taking the Fifth would do.

In September 2000, as a prelude to leading authorities to where the two babies were buried in a remote area in the Maine woods, Corneau broke with other sect members and took the Fifth Amendment.

After Nasif's ruling, Carney told reporters, "It is agonizing to see my clients remain in jail when they have come here and told the truth."

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