High court upholds convictions of 2 who let daughter die as they prayed

Journal Sentinel, Wisconsin/July 3, 2013

The state Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld the convictions of a Weston couple who prayed for their dying daughter instead of seeking medical care for her.

Dale and Leiliani's 11-year-old daughter, Madeline Kara Neumann, died of untreated diabetes March 23, 2008. When she stopped breathing, her parents and their friends who were praying over her called 911.

The couple were convicted of reckless homicide in separate trials with different juries in 2009 and each sentenced to 180 days in jail and 10 years of probation. The jail sentences were postponed while the Neumanns appealed.

The case centered on whether the spiritual healing exception under the state child abuse and neglect law shields parents from other kinds of prosecutions. The court found it does not. The justices voted 6-1 to uphold the convictions, with Justice David Prosser dissenting.

"The decision essentially gutted the faith healing privilege under the child abuse statute," said attorney Steven Miller, who represented Dale Neumann.

Miller said the court made it clear that a person could be charged even if they were engaging in activity protected by the faith-healing statute and that parents cannot rely on that faith-healing privilege.

At least one lawmaker wants to eliminate the spiritual healing exception.

State Rep. Terese Berceau (D-Madison) said Wednesday she will re-introduce legislation in the coming week that would remove the prayer exception to Wisconsin's child abuse and neglect statutes. She originally introduced the bill in 2009, but delayed reintroduction until after the state Supreme Court's decision.

The proposed legislation does not remove the right of an adult to reject medical treatment for faith healing.

The Neumanns have not yet discussed or decided if they will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, Miller said.

"They lost their child. Obviously, that was an extreme tragedy. They never expected that. To deal with a criminal trial, felony convictions and a very long appeal process, it's been painful," he said.

If they did appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court and the court accepted the case, it would be the first time the highest court addressed a faith-healing case involving children, said Shawn Francis Peters, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor and author of "When Prayer Fails: Faith Healing, Children and the Law."

About a dozen children die annually nationwide when parents rely on faith healing instead of medical treatment, Peters said.

"It kind of questions our assumptions about the effectiveness of law to control behavior when it's religiously motivated behavior," he said. "For many people, adherence to their faith supersedes their adherence to the laws of the state."

The Neumanns' attorneys had asked the state Supreme Court to reverse the convictions, arguing that state law protects prayer healers. The Neumanns do not belong to any identifiable church or religious organization but identify as Pentecostals and believe there are spiritual root causes to sickness, according to court records.

Specifically, the Neumanns' attorneys argued that the parents' due process rights were violated because they were not duly notified that they could be criminally liable if the prayer treatment failed to save their child.

The couple also took issue with jury instructions, and Dale Neumann argued that his jury was biased because it knew his wife already had been convicted.

An assistant attorney general told the justices that the couple placed their daughter at substantial risk of death. A parent who prays over an ailing child can't be charged with child abuse, but the state argued if the child dies, that protection doesn't apply.

In the majority opinion, the justices agreed with the prosecutor that the treatment-through-prayer provision applies only to charges of criminal child abuse and does not create a blanket protection from criminal prosecution for a parent.

The Neumanns also had argued that they did not know their daughter was reaching a point of "substantial risk of death" as described in the reckless homicide law because her symptoms were hard to identify.

"If we were to adopt the parents' reasoning, no prayer-treating parent would know what point is beyond 'a substantial risk of death' until the child actually stopped breathing and died," the majority wrote.

Miller said the Neumanns were charged with a crime of omission and the state was required to prove the couple had a duty to act. The majority opinion, however, doesn't fully address that, he said.

"When did the Neumanns have a duty to provide professional medical care? You'll see (the majority opinion) never really answered the question other than to say maybe always," Miller said.

Prosser raised that problem in his dissenting opinion.

"The Neumanns claim that the reckless homicide statute is too murky to give sufficient notice as to when parent choice of treatment through prayer becomes illegal. Given the nature of (her) illness as well as the imprecision in the statutory language, I agree. There is a due process problem here," he wrote.

Peters said that argument - "We knew our kid was sick but didn't know how sick" - is one parents often make in these cases.

"They always say that. Courts are never convinced by that and juries aren't often convinced by that," Peters said.

The facts in the death of Madeline, known as Kara to her family and friends, are not disputed. She died at 3:30 p.m. March 23, 2008 - Easter Sunday - after having gradually worsening symptoms of exhaustion and dehydration for a few weeks. Experts at the trials testified that she would have appeared healthy as late as the Thursday before she died.

On Saturday, she stayed home from work at her family's coffee shop and slept all day. When her mother checked on her, the girl's legs were skinny and blue. Her parents sent an email at 4:58 p.m. Saturday asking people to pray for her daughter.

During the trial, Kara's brother testified he believed she was in a coma, but others testified that they did not sense any danger in her condition. Leilani Neumann's sister-in-law in California called 911 after hearing about her niece's condition. When paramedics tried to measure the 11-year-old's blood sugar, it was too high for a monitor to read.

A pediatric endocrinologist testified that diabetic ketoacidosis has a 99.8% survival rate, and Kara's chances of survival were high until "well into the day of her death."

All the Neumann children were born in a hospital and vaccinated, but about a decade before the girl's death, Dale Neumann believed his back pain was healed through prayer. They decided not to go to doctors for treatment anymore, believing they would be "putting the doctor before God."

The Neumann case followed the pattern of other such cases, Peters said.

"(U)sually it's the garden-variety illness that most pediatricians can diagnose and treat in a snap," he said.

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