Followers trial: Dad laughs, cries with jurors

KATU News, Oregon/January 27, 2010

Oregon City, Oregon - In the moments after his 16-year-old son died, Jeff Beagley said he was walking around in a daze and couldn't believe what had just happened.

That's the story that came out Wednesday in Clackamas County court as Jeff Beagley took the stand for the first time in his faith-healing trial.

For the first time the court also saw photos of Jeff's son, Neil Beagley, who died at age 16 from what the medical examiner called a treatable condition. The family is part of the Oregon City-based Followers of Christ Church, which believes in faith healing and has seen more than 80 children laid to rest in its Oregon City church cemetery.

The Followers of Christ church received national attention a decade ago when KATU News broke a story about the number of child deaths among parishioners. The coverage led to the removal of Oregon's spiritual healing shield, which protected parents who use prayer instead of medicine to treat deadly diseases.

In court to face charges in Neil's death, Jeff described the days and hours that ran up to his son dying in June 2008. He appeared to make a good impression with jurors: they smiled with his jokes, and cried during his explanation of Neil's death. However, prosecution hammered him about being at his granddaughter's death a few months earlier and not catching a clue about his own son.

"[Neil] told me his mom was overreacting," Jeff Beagley said, "because he didn't think he was going to get the flu."

Beagley told the jury that his son turned down an offer to go to the hospital not long before he died. It's a defense that runs throughout this trial given that – in the state of Oregon – individuals age 15 or older "may give consent to hospital care, medical or surgical diagnosis or treatment" according to its Rights of Minors rule 109.640.

Still, Jeff said the family didn't think his son had anything more than the flu.

The testimony came after video and pictures of Neil, from early childhood through his teenage years, were shared in court. Those pictures appeared to be used by the defense to paint a picture of the family as part of mainstream America, not part of a church congregation that isolates itself from society. Those photos also show a boy that does not appear sickly, despite the medical examiner's testimony that Neil suffered from chronic renal failure and urinary tract complications from birth.

The day Neil died, Jeff Beagley said it came completely unexpected. His son had gone to take a nap and simply quit breathing.

"I sat there and couldn't believe it," he said. "I don't know, it was such a shock because he didn't seem that bad; it was such a shock."

The medical examiner testified that it was a defect in Neil's urinary tract that caused urine to back up into his kidneys and cause his heart and lungs to fail. While at first the medical examiner had said this was an incredibly painful way to die, the medical examiner has admitted he was wrong.

The father, now facing charges of criminally negligent homicide, recounted his position in court: "They were saying he was in excruciating pain, and I couldn't believe," Jeff said. "That's not what I had seen. I just couldn't believe it."

On Wednesday afternoon, the prosecutor in this homicide case pushed Beagley about whether going to a doctor would cause excommunication from the Followers of Christ Church. Though excommunication is not an issue, Beagley himself admitted going to the doctor is a sign to church members of a "lack of faith."

The prosecution grilled Beagley about the prior death of his 15-month-old granddaughter, Ava Worthington, whose father was found guilty of criminal mistreatment in July.

"Didn't her death make you think Neil should go to the hospital?" the prosecutor asked.

Beagley said it crossed his mind.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.