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Top Court Refuses Relief to Couple|Whose Baby Died of Faith Healing

SALEM, Ore. (CN) - The Oregon Supreme Court upheld the manslaughter convictions and prison sentences of a couple whose newborn baby died after they chose faith healing over medical treatment. The Followers of Christ church in Oregon City has a history of its members' children dying from this.

More than a decade ago, Oregon City officials claimed to have discovered an unusually large number of child deaths from families who belonged to the church. This led to a 1999 law that limited the use of religious defenses in criminal negligence cases.

Oregon City is the seat of Clackamas County, about 20 miles south of Portland.

From 2009 to 2011, the Clackamas County District Attorney's Office prosecuted four couples from Followers of Christ for failing to seek medical attention for their children.

Dale and Shannon Hickman, whose premature son David died nine hours after being born, were sentenced in 2011 to six years in prison.

The Hickmans testified at trial that their son, who weighed 3 lbs. 7 oz., appeared to be healthy despite his size. They said David showed symptoms of distress just 15 minutes before he died, an argument the state said "made no biological sense."

An attorney for the couple argued that the state had to prove that the couple acted "knowingly" in withholding medical treatment from their son, but the trial court disagreed.

The Oregon Court of Appeals affirmed the ruling on criminal negligence, and the Oregon Supreme Court affirmed as well Thursday.

Writing for the en banc court, Judge Virginia Linder noted that, though Hickmans did not bring their religious beliefs into their defense, they were relevant to the case.

"Even with the state's medical experts' testimony, a looming question remained: Why? Why would any parent, seeing his or her three-and-a-half pound newborn child in the obvious distress that the experts described, not call for medical help?" Linder wrote.

Linder noted there is no mention of religious motivation in the manslaughter by neglect or maltreatment statute.

"The inquiry was not whether defendants' religiously motivated conduct was reasonable; instead, the inquiry was whether a reasonable person would have been aware of the risk of David's death," Linder wrote (emphasis in original).

"Counsel's concern that the criminal negligence standard under the statute requires the jury impermissibly to make a value judgment on defendants' religious beliefs or practices is unfounded."

The Hickmans, both of whom turned 30 this year, were represented by Bronson James and Ryan Scott with Scott & Huggins Law Office in Portland. Their earliest release date from prison in Jan. 29, 2018, according to state penitentiary records. Dale is being held at Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, while Shannon is at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville.

Senior Assistant Attorney General Cecil Reniche-Smith argued for the state.

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