Prison for Parents Who Chose Prayer Over ER

(CN) – Jurors properly convicted a couple of reckless homicide for choosing to treat their 11-year-old daughter’s “undiagnosed serious illness with prayer, rather than medicine,” the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled.
Leilani and Dale Neumann, who were tried separately and convicted by different juries, were both sentenced to 180 days in jail and 10 years of probation. Each was sentenced to serve 30 days in jail every year for the next six years, alternating the months of March and September between the two of them.
The couple’s daughter, Madeline Kara Neumann, known as Kara, died on March 23, 2008, from diabetic ketoacidosis resulting from untreated juvenile diabetes mellitus. Kara would have appeared healthy to the casual observer in the weeks leading up to her death with gradually worsening symptoms like dehydration, weakness, exhaustion, and frequent thirst and urination.
She took a turn for the worse four days before her death on Thursday evening, and had to eat dinner in her bedroom Friday. On Saturday, after finding her daughter lying in bed, pale and with blue legs, Leilani Neumann called her husband into the room and the two began rubbing Kara’s legs and praying for her.
The Neumanns identify as Pentecostals but otherwise denied any church affiliation. Though the couple had had all of their children in a hospital and had gotten them vaccinated, they eventually stopped going to doctors out of a belief that illnesses have spiritual causes for illnesses, and that putting doctors before God amounted to idolatry and sin.
Allegedly unsure what was wrong with Kara, the Neumanns left the sickly girl on the couch, unresponsive and likely in a coma, Saturday night when they went to bed because they “were exhausted … [from the] nonstop praying and just continually trusting in the Lord.”
On Sunday morning, the Neumanns invited visitors to come and pray for Kara at their home. At this point, Kara was still in a coma-like condition, could not speak, and urinated on herself. The Neumanns refused to give her medicine or take her to a hospital.
Mrs. Neumann allegedly believed Kara was under “spiritual attack,” and she told her own father that giving the girl Pedialyte would be taking away the glory from God.
A visiting friend and Leilani’s sister-in-law in California called 911, but help came too late.
Emergency medical personnel arrived to find Kara dead, with her parents praying over her. Doctors and emergency personnel recorded that Kara’s blood sugar level was too high for the monitor to read, her skin was bluish-gray, and she was in a skeleton-like condition, with a pronounced pelvic bone, eye sockets, cheekbones and ribs. An emergency room doctor referred to her as looking “cachectic,” a term typically used to describe very malnourished cancer patients.
Another medical expert testified that Kara’s condition would have been treatable with a 99.8 percent survival rate, and that her chances would have been good “well into the day of her death.”
The Court of Appeals consolidated Leilani and Dale Neumann’s separate cases, which argued that their due-process rights had been violated at trial. The couple also claimed that they were protected from homicide charges under a treatment-by-prayer provision in the state law governing child abuse.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court, on certification from the appellate court, concluded otherwise last week.
Wisconsin Statute 948.03 (6) provides legal protection against criminal action for parents who use prayer methods to treat their children. The provision reads: “Treatment through prayer. A person is not guilty of an offense under this section solely because he or she provides a child with treatment by spiritual means through prayer alone for healing in accordance with the religious method of healing permitted under s.48.981(3)(c)4 or 448.03(6) in lieu of medical or surgical treatment.”
Wisconsin Statute 940.06(1) defines reckless homicide as an actor creating “an unreasonable and substantial risk of death or great bodily harm to another human being.” The statute says that the actor must also be “aware of that risk.”
Subsections A and C of 948.03(3) govern child abuse and state that whoever causes bodily harm to a child, or engages in conduct that creates a high probability of bodily harm, is guilty of a felony.
The Neumanns said these statutes mean that they were acting lawfully until Kara’s medical condition progressed “to at least some point beyond a substantial risk of death.”
Claiming that “substantial risk of death” means the exact moment that Kara died, the couple said medical assistance was sought when a “substantial risk of death” presented itself because one of their friends had called 911 when the girl stopped breathing.
The Neumanns said there is no clear boundary between when they stopped being protected under the treatment through prayer statute and subsequently became liable according to the reckless homicide statute.
A six-justice majority of the Wisconsin Supreme Court determined that the treatment through prayer clause does not excuse parents from their legal duty to provide medical care to their children. It also pointed out that the statute applies to child abuse, not reckless homicide.
“We conclude that the second-degree reckless homicide statute and the criminal child abuse statute provide sufficient notice that the parents’ conduct could have criminal consequences if their daughter died,” Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson wrote for the court. “We further conclude that the jury instructions were not erroneous; that trial counsels’ performance was not ineffective assistance of counsel; that the controversy was fully tried; and that the jury in the father’s case was not objectively biased.”
Justice David Prosser dissented based on his finding of several “problematic” issues with the Neumanns’ trials.
“The Neumanns claim that the reckless homicide statute is too murky to give sufficient notice as to when parental choice of treatment through prayer becomes illegal,” Prosser wrote. “Given the nature of Kara’s illness, as well as the imprecision in the statutory language, I agree. There is a due process problem here. On the facts before us, the statutes are very difficult to understand and almost impossible to explain. Indeed, the statutory scheme is so difficult to explain that if a prayer-treating parent were to consult an attorney on how he or she could prayer treat and stay within the bounds of the law, virtually any attorney would be at a loss to reasonably advise the client.”

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