Vegan couple cleared of starving baby, guilty of child neglect

MIAMI, Florida — A couple who kept their five children on a strict raw foods diet was cleared of aggravated manslaughter Monday for the death of their 6-month-old baby, but convicted of four counts of child neglect.

A Miami jury returned the verdict after less than 90 minutes of deliberation in the trial of Joseph and Lamoy Andressohn, who were accused of feeding their children an inadequate diet of raw fruits and vegetables in spite of signs that they appeared malnourished and underweight.

The four counts of neglect relate to the Andressohns’ oldest surviving children, ages 4 to 9. They weighed less than 97 percent of other children their ages, according to prosecution testimony, when baby Woyah died on May 15, 2003.

The infant weighed less than 7 pounds and was 22 inches long when she died, less than half the average for children her age, according to prosecution medical experts.

During his closing argument Monday, Assistant State Attorney Herbert Walker told jurors the baby and her siblings became “sacrificial lambs” for their parents’ zealous beliefs.

“This person did not grow and did not thrive, and it was these two people who didn’t feed her,” Walker said, pointing at the defendants with one hand and holding in the other a now-familiar picture of the emaciated infant.

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With the split verdict, the panel seemed to accept in part the defense theory that baby Woyah died from an infection caused by a congenital defect which weakened her immune system.

Defense attorney Ellis Rubin pointed out that the other four children were raised on the same diet, and that Lamoy Andressohn stopped breast-feeding Woyah’s 18-month-old sister, Rayah, at three months, just as she had Woyah, replacing the milk with a formula of wheat grass, almond and coconut juice.

Rubin also argued that the Andressohns were scapegoats of Florida’s beleaguered Child Protective Services, whose case workers had visited the family’s Homestead home less than a week before Woyah’s death.

The agency had come under fire in an unrelated case when it as discovered a foster child had been missing for eight months. The child, Rilyah Wilson, was never found.

“This case didn’t start with the death of Woyah Andressohn,” Rubin said in his closing. “It started when complaints about Mrs. Andressohn’s lifestyle and how she was handling her children were made to the Florida Department of Children and Families.”

After the verdict, Lamoy Andressohn, 30, said she looked forward to being reunited with her surviving children, including a new baby girl, Joyah, who was born after the couple’s arrest in June 2003.

Joyah Andressohn lives with an unidentified foster family, although she was spotted outside the courtroom Monday being breast-fed by Lamoy Andressohn.

Joseph Andressohn, 36, echoed his wife’s sentiments.

“I do consider it a victory, although our daughter is still not with us,” he said, referring to Woyah.

The pair still face up to 20 years in prison on the four counts of child neglect when they are sentenced on December 15, but could receive probation. A hearing to determine if they will remain free on bond was scheduled Thursday.

Since the Andressohns lost custody in August 2003 pending the outcome of their trial, the other four children have lived with Joseph Andressohn’s sister.

Mary Andressohn, an agent with the Department of Homeland Security testified at trial that the children had each gained at least 10 pounds since moving in with her.

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“The Andressohns are members of the Hebrew Israelites, a group of African-Americans who consider themselves the true descendants of the biblical tribe of Judah. Members are referred to as saints, and many take the last name “Ben Israel,” meaning son of Israel. Some of their customs include wearing only natural fabrics and maintaining a vegan diet void of all animal byproducts. They forbid smoking, drinking, drugs and even caffeine.”
Baby’s starvation death under investigation

The Andressohns caught their first glimpse of their two oldest sons in two years when the boys testified via video that their parents often locked the refrigerator and taught them that cooked foods were “evil.”

It is unclear how the verdict will affect the couple’s current custody arrangement, since the decision ultimately lies with the dependency court, but defense attorney Rubin said he was confident that there would be a “family reunion” within the year.

“They’re not a danger to anybody. They were only doing what they thought was right for the lifestyle of the children,” Rubin said.

Prosecutor Walker admitted he was surprised by the verdict but said he accepted the jury’s decision.

“It was a devastating feeling hearing the words ‘not guilty’ on first count. Then the feeling of devastation was followed by confusion when I heard ‘guilty’ on the second,” Walker said, adding he felt there was more evidence to prove manslaughter than neglect.

“Baby Woyah’s death was something I didn’t take lightly, given the circumstances of her death,” Walker said. “She was a defenseless child, so the state attempted to speak on her behalf.”

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Nov. 8, 2005
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