Jury to begin deliberating fate of parents in faith-healing case

The Oregonian/September 28, 2011

Dale and Shannon Hickman failed their newborn son at several points in his ever-so-brief life, prosecutors said Wednesday during closing arguments of the Oregon City couple's trial.

Shannon Hickman never sought prenatal care and the couple never considered taking the premature infant to a hospital, prosecutors said. And when the baby turned blue and struggled for breath, no one called 9-1-1. "The chance of his survival ... was zero," said Clackamas County prosecutor Mike Regan.

The Hickmans are charged with second-degree manslaughter in the death of their son, David, who was born two months early and lived less than nine hours. Oregon law requires parents to seek adequate medical care for their children and to be aware of risks that would be obvious to a reasonable person.

Jurors, who begin deliberating today, also may consider a lesser charge, second-degree criminal mistreatment.

Regan told jurors that the deck was stacked against David because the Hickmans and their relatives are members of the Followers of Christ, an Oregon City church that uses faith-healing rituals and rejects medical treatment. "I respect the fact that they lost their son" and grieve for him, Regan said. David Hickman was doomed because "he was born into an ideology that does not believe in medical care." Regan said.

Defense attorneys said the Hickmans and their church are victims of religious persecution and were targeted by the district attorney's office.

Mark Cogan, Dale Hickman's attorney, urged jurors to set aside the role of religion in the case. "We're not here to debate theology," Cogan said. "All religions have beliefs and practices that when put under the microscope" look strange to outsiders, Cogan said. "The Followers of Christ church is not on trial."

Regan told jurors that everyone at the birth knew David faced serious risks. "These people are not stupid."

For those who believe as the Hickmans do, "that moment of life and death ... is when God is testing your faith," Regan said. "Faith healing in life-and-death situations is illegal.

Cogan countered that there's no proof medical intervention could have saved the infant. "There was rejoicing," not alarm, at David's birth. Some of those present called him "our little miracle," Cogan said.

"Nobody foresaw what would happen within 12 hours" between Shannon Hickman's labor and her son's death, Cogan said.

Defense attorneys said the infant died from an undetected blood infection and that the death came so quickly there was nothing the Hickmans could have done. Prosecutors say the baby died from respiratory distress and staph pneumonia.

Defense attorneys said he was killed by sepsis, a blood infection caused by Group B streptococcus. Prosecutors point out that laboratory tests did not confirm that strep was present and contend that defense attorneys were stretching the facts to fit their version of events.

Cogan said no one saw David fighting for breath until minutes before he died. The baby "came into the world looking so healthy" and sepsis swiftly took his life "without anyone being at fault," Cogan said.

It is unfair to fault the Hickmans for failing to call 9-1-1, Cogan said. "What opportunity was there? What benefit would there have been?"

The prosecution has "no idea whether (paramedics) could have saved the child," Cogan said. "There's no proof of it," Cogan said. "There's no evidence."

Prosecutor John Wentworth said the Hickmans ignored glaring signals that David, who would have celebrated his second birthday this past Monday, was in danger. David's underdeveloped lungs made him struggle for every breath until he weakened and died, Wentworth said.

The Hickmans, both 26, and family members present at the home birth, knew David was born early and was abnormally small, Wentworth said.

"What would a reasonable person do in this situation?" Wentworth asked the jury. "That baby goes to the hospital."

Wentworth said those in the home noticed clear changes in David's condition and there was ample time to call for help. The baby's breathing slowed, his color changed from pink to pale to blue to gray, his features slackened and he lost consciousness.

"There was plenty of time to do something," Wentworth said. "What did Shannon and Dale Hickman do? Nothing," he said. "They didn't even try. What kind of parent doesn't even try?"

Wentworth told jurors that the Hickmans use dentists and eye doctors and noted that they called on a medical doctor to testify on their behalf during trial, saying "trust what he has to say even though we don't."

"The hypocrisy in this case," Wentworth said, "is overwhelming."

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