Trial ordered in girl's death

Judge says couple must answer charges that they allowed infant daughter to die because they shun medical care out of religious belief.

Note: This church is independent and not affiliated with the Church of God congregations.

LA Times/March 13, 2002
By Gene Maddaus

Rancho Cucamonga -- A judge on Tuesday ordered a couple to stand trial for failing to get medical care for their 11-month-old daughter who died from meningitis in July.

Richard Wiebe, 28, and his wife, Agnes, 30, members of the Church of God in Upland, were held to answer to charges that they allowed their daughter, Julia, to die because they do not believe in medical care.

"Obviously, we're disappointed," said the Wiebes' pastor, Danny Layne. "We're hoping that this will be reversed at trial." The Wiebes face up to 10 years in state prison if convicted.

San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge J. Michael Gunn said the possibility of such an outcome seemed harsh, but based on the evidence presented to him, he had no option but to order a trial.

"The sentence is quite severe," Gunn said. "Whether that's justice or not is for other people to decide."

Defense attorney David Goldstein argued that his clients did not understand the seriousness of Julia's illness, and by the time they did, it was probably too late for doctors to save her.

"What occurred was a tragedy," he said, "not a crime."

Goldstein argued that religion is not the central issue in the case. Divine healing is not stressed in the church, he said, and he attributed the Wiebes' failure to take Julia to the hospital to their lack of medical sophistication. Indeed, in some cases they would have taken Julia to the hospital, Goldstein argued.

But Gunn doubted the argument, saying that when Julia suffered prolonged convulsions the night before she died, "it's patently obvious to anybody that the baby should go to the hospital."

Deputy Dist. Atty. Jeremy Carrasco took up that point, stressing that the law holds parents to an objective standard in deciding when health care should be sought. The Wiebes are criminally responsible if a reasonable person would have taken his or her daughter to a doctor.

When the child was convulsing, "it should have set off some bells and whistles," Carrasco said.

Medical care was not summoned until after Julia died. Richard Wiebe called Layne and asked what he should do after Julia stopped breathing the morning of July 6. Layne told him to call 911.

In his argument, Goldstein cited California's religious exemption law, which permits parents to seek divine healing in cases that don't involve serious bodily injury or death. The symptoms were so mild until the day before Julia's death, he argued, that the Wiebes were behaving legally when they prayed for Julia's health, thinking she only had the flu.

Goldstein characterized the bacteria that caused Julia's meningitis as "ferocious" and argued that her condition deteriorated so rapidly there was nothing a doctor could do.

But Gunn did not accept the argument, and Carrasco said the issue did not concern him.

"I knew the law was on our side with regard to the religion issue and seeking medical treatment," Carrasco said.

The Wiebes are scheduled to next appear in court Tuesday. They remain free on $150,000 bail.

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