Jurors in faith-healing trial say evidence overpowered a weak defense

The Oregonian/September 29, 2011

Oregon City -- Dale and Shannon Hickman tightly embraced and trembled in tears Thursday after a Clackamas County jury found them guilty of second-degree manslaughter in the faith-healing death of their newborn son.

Jurors deliberated less than four hours and their verdict sent another resounding warning to the members of the Hickmans' church, the Followers of Christ, that failing to provide medical care to critically ill children is unacceptable and will be punished.

The Followers have a long history of children dying from treatable medical conditions, and Oregon has a history of granting legal protections to faith healers.

But because of a recent change in state law, the Hickmans could be the last Oregon parents to receive special consideration when they are sentenced Oct. 31.

Defense attorneys argued that their clients were being prosecuted for their religious views.

The jury found the Hickmans' defense unpersuasive and flawed, said jury foreman Collin Fleming. And the testimony of the Hickmans and other family members worked against them, he said.

The Hickmans' son, David, was born two months prematurely and lived less than nine hours. An autopsy found he had staph pneumonia and underdeveloped lungs.

A pediatric expert who testified at the 10-day trial said the baby had a 99.9 percent chance of surviving if he had been taken to a hospital -- the standard response for premature babies born at home. Even defense medical experts agreed hospitalization was the right choice.

The Hickmans said they knew the baby was born early but believed he would survive. When he turned blue, gasped for breath and lost consciousness, the Hickmans prayed but did not attempt to get medical help.

"For me, that was the bottom line," Fleming said. "They didn't do anything."

Jurors said disregard for the child's life left them little choice. A straw poll taken at the start of deliberations found at least nine of the jurors ready to convict.

The Hickmans' attorneys, John Neidig and Mark Cogan, declined comment, as did Clackamas County District Attorney John Foote.

Second-degree manslaughter is a Class B felony that requires a sentence of at least six years and three months in prison under Measure 11, Oregon's mandatory sentencing law. However, because of a religious exemption that was eliminated after the Hickmans were indicted, Presiding Judge Robert D. Herndon could depart from Measure 11 and impose a lesser sentence. Prosecutors told Herndon they will argue against leniency and seek the longer prison term.

Generally, jurors said they didn't believe some defense witnesses and found some defense arguments unsupported by the facts. "They misstated things, evidence," juror Mike Brokaw said.

One point of contention was a defense claim that David was quickly killed by a fast-moving, undetected blood infection.

Laboratory tests did not find the killer bacteria. A doctor who testified for the defense explained how the child could have been killed by the infection, sepsis, even if lab results were negative.

"They couldn't prove any of it," said juror Kyle Bauman.

Prosecutors provided a timeline that showed there was as much as 45 minutes between the time the baby's condition noticeably changed and his death, more than enough time to get emergency medical help. Instead, Dale Hickman held his son and anointed him with oil. He said he was with the baby for five or 10 minutes.

Shannon Hickman testified that she watched for maybe five minutes as the baby took his final labored breaths.

Jurors questioned whether the decline was so rapid.

"We really didn't trust Shannon's testimony very much," said Fleming.

The amount of time was irrelevant, Fleming said. "They were never going to call for medical assistance."

Some of the most damning testimony came from the Hickmans and their relatives -- all lifelong members of the Followers of Christ.

The church witnesses exhibited "a fatalistic attitude all the way," Fleming said.

Prosecutors said David Hickman's fate was sealed when he took his first breath. The boy -- a great-great grandson of church founder Walter White -- would never have received medical treatment, regardless of his condition. They said he was born into a family bound to the belief that life-and-death decisions were a test of faith. God, not doctors, would determine who survives and who succumbs -- even when an illness is treatable by medicine or a minor medical procedure.

That point was made clear by Lavona Keith, a church midwife and Shannon Hickman's aunt. "It wasn't God's will for David to live," she told jurors.

Dale and Shannon Hickman made similar statements.

Shannon Hickman said even if she had wanted to call 9-1-1 she was powerless to act because her church calls for wives to submit to their husband's decisions -- to do otherwise is a sin.

Regardless of her views, jurors said she still had parental responsibility.

Oregon law has changed dramatically since the 1995, when legislators introduced a religious defense to state homicide statutes. The state cracked down on the exemptions after a series of faith-healing deaths in 1999 and Gov. John Kitzhaber signed a law in June eliminating the last remnants of Oregon's "spiritual healing defense."

Parents who practice faith healing are now held to the same child-protection standards as those who don't.

Followers of Christ cases

In three recent cases, parents from Oregon City's Followers of Christ church were held criminally responsible for failing to provide medical care for their children.

Raylene and Carl Brent Worthington: Fifteen-month-old Ava Worthington died March 2, 2008, at her parents' home of bronchial pneumonia and a blood infection. Her parents conducted faith-healing rituals but never sought medical treatment. Carl Worthington was convicted of misdemeanor criminal mistreatment and sentenced to two months in jail. Raylene Worthington was acquitted on all charges.

Jeffrey and Marci Beagley: 15-year-old Neil Beagley, brother of Raylene Worthington, became ill from a urinary tract blockage and died two weeks later in June 2008. The Beagleys said they followed their son's wishes in treating him only with prayer and faith healing. Both parents were convicted of criminally negligent homicide and sentenced to 16 months in prison.

Timothy and Rebecca Wyland: As an infant, Alayna Wyland developed an abnormal mass of blood vessels that grew across her face and engulfed her left eye. Child protection authorities took custody, and Alayna improved under court-ordered care. The Wylands were convicted of first-degree criminal mistreatment and sentenced to 90 days in jail. Alayna remains under state supervision.

Reporter Yuxing Zheng contributed to this story.

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