Jeff Beagley told an Oregon City jury Wednesday that despite staying home from work the June 2008 day his 16-year-old son died, spending the whole night before awake talking to Neil, carrying his ill son to the bathroom and family members coming to pray over Neil, he didn’t think Neil’s condition was bad enough that his life was in danger.
Jeff and Marci Beagley face criminally negligent homicide charges in the faith-healing death of their teenage son, who died June 17, 2008, from complications due to an inflammation in his urinary tract, according to the county medical examiner’s office.
Jeff Beagley cried while testifying about the death of his 15-month-old granddaughter, Ava Worthington, three months before Neil died. He cried again, as did Marci Beagley, when reviewing a school assignment Neil had done explaining why he looked up to his father.
Prosecutors … pressed Beagley on his religious beliefs and whether he ever would have taken Neil to a hospital.
“Your son is fighting just a common flu and then just out of the blue just stops breathing and you didn’t do anything?” asked Deputy District Attorney Greg Horner.
“I can’t tell you what I did,” Beagley said.
“Did you make any effort to get his heart going again?” Horner asked.
“I didn’t know how to do that at that point,” replied Beagley.
“Did you try to get the people there who did know what to do?” Horner asked.
Beagley said he didn’t.
“Nobody did anything because that’s part of your belief, isn’t it, it’s just the will of God,” Horner pressed.
“I guess it is,” Beagley said.
The Followers of Christ church received national attention a decade ago when KATU News broke a story about the number of child deaths among parishioners. The coverage led to the removal of Oregon’s spiritual healing shield, which protected parents who use prayer instead of medicine to treat deadly diseases.
Beagley told the jury that his son turned down an offer to go to the hospital not long before he died. It’s a defense that runs throughout this trial given that – in the state of Oregon – individuals age 15 or older “may give consent to hospital care, medical or surgical diagnosis or treatment” according to its Rights of Minors rule 109.640.
Still, Jeff said the family didn’t think his son had anything more than the flu.
The testimony came after video and pictures of Neil, from early childhood through his teenage years, were shared in court. Those pictures appeared to be used by the defense to paint a picture of the family as part of mainstream America, not part of a church congregation that isolates itself from society. Those photos also show a boy that does not appear sickly, despite the medical examiner’s testimony that Neil suffered from chronic renal failure and urinary tract complications from birth.
The day Neil died, Jeff Beagley said it came completely unexpected.
On Wednesday afternoon, the prosecutor in this homicide case pushed Beagley about whether going to a doctor would cause excommunication from the Followers of Christ Church. Though excommunication is not an issue, Beagley himself admitted going to the doctor is a sign to church members of a “lack of faith.”
The prosecution grilled Beagley about the prior death of his 15-month-old granddaughter, Ava Worthington, whose father was found guilty of criminal mistreatment in July.
“Didn’t her death make you think Neil should go to the hospital?” the prosecutor asked.
Beagley said it crossed his mind.
Taking the stand in his own defense Wednesday, Jeffrey Beagley explained how his family’s faith affected the last days and hours of his son’s life.
Prosecutor Greg Horner focused on the Beagleys’ church, the Followers of Christ in Oregon City, and the congregation’s belief that using medical care shows a lack of faith in God.
Under questioning, Beagley said he and his wife had been lifelong church members, as had their parents, their children and relatives.
Church members use prayer, anointing with oil and laying on of hands — where congregants touch the afflicted person — as part of their healing ritual. Beagley said no one in his immediate family has ever sought medical treatment.
Beagley’s attorney, Wayne Mackeson, asked about the family’s views on faith healing and medical care.
“We try to put God first and the other second, going in and getting help,” Beagley said. “God will heal us. I’ve seen a lot of that done.”
Twice in the 12 hours before Neil died, church and family members attempted to treat Neil with laying on of hands. Beagley said the practice isn’t necessarily reserved for serious illness, but that it had been used to treat Neil only once before.
A key “belief of the church is a reliance on a faith in God when facing medical problems” isn’t it, asked prosecutor Greg Horner.
“I wouldn’t go that far,” Beagley said.
“You hold that (belief) pretty hard that God will heal you,” Horner asked.
“I trust in that a lot,” Beagley said.
And going to a hospital would show a lack of faith, Horner said.
Yes, Beagley said.
Was that value communicated to your son,” Horner said.
“Probably,” Beagley said.
“You were going to leave it to him to show a lack of faith in God, right,” Horner asked.
It would be something the family would discuss, Beagley said. “It would be on me, too.”