Jeffrey and Marci Beagley sentenced to 16 months of prison for their son's faith-healing death

The Oregonian/March 8, 2010

Oregon City - Clackamas County Circuit Court Judge Steven Maurer sentenced Jeffrey and Marci Beagley to 16 months in prison this afternoon, calling the couple's decision to not seek medical care for their 16-year-old son, Neil Beagley, a "crime that was a product of an unwillingness to respect the boundaries of freedom of religious expression."

Marci Beagley sobbed as the sentencing was read, and shortly after, defense attorney Wayne Mackeson objected to the prison time. The sentence also includes three years of post-prison supervision.

Jeffrey and Marci Beagley were found guilty of criminally negligent homicide after a two-week trial that focused on the death of 16-year-old Neil Beagley, who died in June 2008 of complications involved with a urinary tract obstruction.

"The idea of sending Jeffrey and Marci Beagley to prison is heart-wrenching," Maurer said in a lengthy explanation of his sentence. "I think, certainly, that I'm in complete agreement with the jurors who observed that the Beagleys are good people."

But Maurer said too many children had died unnecessarily because of the church's beliefs: "It needs to stop."

He touched upon religious freedom, saying he thought the community was very respectful to beliefs from congregations like the Followers of Christ Church, which believes in faith-healing at the exclusion of most medical care. But that freedom come with boundaries when it comes to children, he said.

"It is up to us as a community and a criminal justice system, and government, to take very seriously that societal obligation … and recognize that investment and interest we have in each and every child," he said.

The sentence could be a "pause for reflection" or re-examination for the Followers of Christ church, according to Maurer, who added that he believed the church was capable of "softening the rigidity" of their beliefs on excluding medical care.

The courtroom was packed with Beagley supporters, including their daughter Raylene Worthington and her husband Carl Brent Worthington. Both were tried in July 2009 for second-degree manslaughter and criminal mistreatment in the death of their daughter, Ava Worthington. Carl Brent Worthington was found guilty of criminal mistreatment, while the two were acquitted of all other charges.

The Beagleys and Worthingtons are members of the Followers of Christ Church, whose members have a lengthy history of child deaths from lack of medical care. The deaths influenced a 1999 law eliminating the religious freedom defense in cases involving the welfare of a child.

Maurer repeated something he stated during the Worthington sentencing, which was also echoed by defense attorneys during the Beagley trial: the case was not a referendum on the church.

Yet ignoring the church's impact on the couple would be self-deluding, he said. "The church is imprinted upon them," he said.

Before Maurer's sentencing, prosecutor Greg Horner urged the court to impose the presumptive sentence of 16 to 18 months. "Only a penitentiary sentence reflects the seriousness of this crime," Horner argued.

It was necessary to consider the notion of deterrence in the case, Horner said, referring to the close-knit church community that closely followed the Beagley and Worthington trials.

"The court has the opportunity to deliver a clear message that this idea that one can let a child die while they're praying without medical attention is not supportable," Horner said. "It must be addressed."

Horner spoke generally about similar cases involving citizens who had no criminal intent and no criminal record - those cases included sentences of up to 16 to 18 months, he said, and this case should be treated the same way. Allowing Neil to die was "outrageous," Horner said.

"That lifetime of loving was erased by the days and weeks and months in the failure to provide the very basics of what a parent is required to do," he said.

Defense attorneys were adamant in recommending probation without prison time, noting that neither defendant had a criminal record.

"Prison would be more destructive than productive," said defense attorney Steve Lindsey, who represents Marci Beagley.

Jeffrey Beagley's attorney Wayne Mackeson spoke of an inseparable family and asked the judge to note that Neil Beagley's death was seen in the shadow of the death of Ava Worthington, who died a few months before Neil.

He also said Neil Beagley's faith was an integral part of the teenager's life. Neil's level of maturity, age and his religious beliefs should be considered by the court, Mackeson said.

The Beagleys' situation was a "unique case" with "unique defendants," according to Mackeson.

Lindsey cited other faith-healing cases that resulted in probation, including one from Minnesota, in which a young girl died of diabetes, and one from Oregon, in which a boy died of leukemia.

He also offered his case for a probationary sentence earlier in the hearing, when he called Courtney Campbell, a philosophy professor who focuses in biomedical ethics at Oregon State University, as a witness on behalf of Marci Beagley.

Campbell recommended probation coupled with education and counseling from the medical community, saying that using "persuasive measures" is ethically preferable to legal sanctions such as prison.

"Probation accompanied by education serves the needs for holding the person accountable for their actions and can prevent similar actions from being carried out in the future," he said, adding that it can provide for the social welfare of society.

Prosecutor Greg Horner hammered Campbell for not knowing all the specifics of the case, and asked if he and his colleagues recommended education and collaboration with the medical community before a death of the child.

"Ideally, yes," Campbell said.

Horner also asked Campbell if he thought the Beagleys should be treated differently than other people who had been convicted of criminally negligent homicide and had been sentenced to the 16 to 18 months of jail.

"I think there are different mechanisms in which you can discharge legal responsibility" and personal accountability, Campbell answered.

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