Wisconsin Supreme Court Upholds Homicide Conviction for Faith-Healing Parents
The Wisconsin Supreme Court has upheld the homicide conviction of a faith-healing couple who let their 11-year-old daughter die from diabetes.
In its 6-1 decision, the court ruled that, "by failing to call for medical assistance when (their daughter Kara) was seriously ill and in a coma-like condition…the parents were creating an unreasonable and substantial risk of Kara's death, were subjectively aware of that risk, and caused her death," according to the majority opinion by Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson.
The court's decision to uphold a lower court's charge of second-degree reckless homicide comes four years after parents Dale and Leilani Neumann were convicted for their daughter's 2008 death from lack of insulin. The Neumanns argued that the charges violated their exercise of religious freedom protected under the First Amendment.
According to The Associated Press, judge Vincent Howard originally ruled that while the Neumanns were free to believe in faith healing, "'the free exercise of the First Amendment protects religious belief, but not necessarily conduct.'"
The ruling is the latest in a growing number of legal cases dealing with parents who seek faith or prayer healing for their children in lieu of traditional medical treatment. According to the AP, "more than a dozen" states legally protect parents' right to pursue faith healing, but the extent to which this right extends—as, for instance, in the case of a child's death—has not been clearly established in the courts.
In the Neumanns' case, the court's ruling "could create guidelines in an unsettled area of law," The New York Times reported in 2009. The AP also notes that Wisconsin's court has sided with state attorneys, who argued that under the state faith healing law, "parents are immune from child abuse charges but not homicide counts. Once (parents) realize a child could die, their immunity ends."
But previous cases in Massachusetts and Oregon have resulted in conflicting rulings regarding the criminality of reliance on faith healing that results in death. Some courts even have taken convicted parents' other children into state custody to prevent further neglect of medical treatment. CT previously reported on the recent Pennsylvania trial that resulted in a conviction of third-degree murder for Herbert and Catherine Schaible, whose infant son died of bacteria pneumonia and dehydration. The Schaibles had been serving probation for the faith-healing-related death of another young son in 2009.