Dale and Shannon Hickman receive 6-year sentence, harshest yet for faith-healing church

The Oregonian/October 31, 2011

Oregon City -- A Clackamas County judge stunned a courtroom packed with supporters of Dale and Shannon Hickman Monday when he sentenced the couple, members of an Oregon City faith-healing church, to prison for six years and three months.

The Hickmans received the mandatory minimum prison term under Measure 11 sentencing guidelines, even though defense attorneys argued that their clients qualified for little or no prison time. Once released, they will be on post-prison supervision for three years.

"This is a sentence you have justly earned," said Presiding Judge Robert D. Herndon. He called incarceration "a modest penalty for causing the death of a vulnerable person. ... This was so preventable."

After Herndon left the courtroom, about 100 church members remained, sullen and many sobbing, as deputies handcuffed the Hickmans and led them away.

The Hickmans were convicted of second-degree manslaughter in September for failing to seek medical care for their son David, who was born two months prematurely and lived less than nine hours. An autopsy found he had staph pneumonia and underdeveloped lungs.

Pediatric experts testified that the baby almost certainly would have survived if he had been taken to a hospital. The Hickmans sought no medical intervention even as the baby turned gray and struggled to breathe.

Under Oregon law in effect when the baby died in 2009, defense attorneys maintained that the Hickmans were eligible for a lesser sentence available to those who rely on spiritual treatment. The Legislature eliminated the exemption this year -- motivated by the long history of child deaths among the Followers – and the Hickmans will be the last Oregonians to attempt to benefit from the old law.

Under the law in effect at the time of the crime, Herndon needed "substantial and compelling reasons" to depart from the sentencing guidelines, and he did not see any.

Had the Hickmans conceded at trial that David was sick -- but not gravely ill -- and that they relied on faith-healing rituals to cure him, they might have fared differently at sentencing. But instead of invoking a religious defense, the Hickmans said they saw no reason to call 9-1-1 or seek medical assistance because there was nothing wrong with their son, even as he grew weaker and died.

"As the evidence unfolded and the witnesses testified, it became evident to me and certainly to the jury that this death just simply did not need to occur," said Herndon, noting that the jury reached a unanimous verdict in a "stunningly" short time.

Defense attorneys Mark Cogan and John Neidig urged Herndon to give the couple probation, assuring Herndon that the parents would take their children to the doctor and get training to help them determine when a child needs a doctor's care.

Shannon Hickman tearfully appealed for Herndon to not separate her from her two children, a 7-year-old daughter and an infant son. Dale Hickman, emotional but composed, asked the judge to "find in your heart mercy for my wife and above all else, our children."

Herndon did not directly address their appeals. Family members are expected to care for the children while the Hickmans serve their sentences.

Cogan declined to comment on the sentence except to say that the Hickmans would appeal.

Prosecutor Mike Regan said the sentence sends a message to the church.

The Followers are not fundamentally different from a black-robed pagan group that sacrifices a sick child in the dead of night, Regan told the court. In the Followers, "we have a religious group sacrificing children's lives, year after year, decade after decade," he said. "We have to do something."

District Attorney John Foote, whose office has prosecuted several Followers cases, noted in an interview that for the first time since 2008, there are no church members awaiting trial.

"We have evidence ... that many members of the church are now quietly taking their children to doctors outside Oregon City. However, we also believe there are a small number of members who are trying to hold on to their old views. And, if those members have children, they are the ones that we worry about."

Recent juries have seemed generally unsympathetic to the Followers Jurors displayed a clear-eyed focus on the legal question underlying all the cases: What would a reasonable person do in the same situation?

Their short answer: Call a doctor.

So far, all defendants have said that was something they never considered. That admission, perhaps more than any other piece of evidence, sealed the Hickmans' fate. "For me, that was the bottom line," jury foreman Collin Fleming said. "They didn't do anything"

During the trial, the Hickmans testified that God determines the outcome in all matters.

"Everything that happens, whether it's good or bad, it's God's will," Dale Hickman told jurors. "If it's not God's will, it wouldn't be done."

Reporter Nicole Dungca contributed.

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