The parents of a newborn who died while they and Followers of Christ members prayed for him to be healed have received the maximum jail terms allowed by law and three years of post-prison probation following their conviction on manslaughter charges.
Dale and Shannon Hickman, who are members of the controversial church and are related to the founder were both sentenced to six years and three months in prison.
The Hickmans’ baby, David, was born two months premature at home in 2009 with church midwives advising them. No medical personnel were present and nothing besides prayer was used when the baby began to struggle to survive just hours after birth.
David died about nine hours after delivery. The Hickman’s attorney claimed religious persecution and said there was no evidence medical care would have saved the baby.
The jury in the case deliberated on their verdict for less than a day and was unanimous in the conviction.
The Hickmans were ordered to serve 75 months in prison and will then be under “post-prison supervision” for another three years following their prison terms.
There was no immediate word if the Hickmans could be released early on parole. The family has other children but what will happen to them has not been revealed.
Under Oregon law in effect when the baby died in 2009, defense attorneys maintained that the Hickmans were eligible for a lesser sentence available to those who rely on spiritual treatment. The Legislature eliminated the exemption this year — motivated by the long history of child deaths among the Followers – and the Hickmans will be the last Oregonians to attempt to benefit from the old law.
Oregon City’s Followers of Christ church has a long history of children dying from treatable conditions because their parents relied on faith healing rather than taking them to doctors.
Prosecutor Mike Regan said the sentence sends a message to the church.
The Followers are not fundamentally different from a black-robed pagan group that sacrifices a sick child in the dead of night, Regan told the court. In the Followers, “we have a religious group sacrificing children’s lives, year after year, decade after decade,” he said. “We have to do something.”
District Attorney John Foote, whose office has prosecuted several Followers cases, noted in an interview that for the first time since 2008, there are no church members awaiting trial.
“We have evidence … that many members of the church are now quietly taking their children to doctors outside Oregon City. However, we also believe there are a small number of members who are trying to hold on to their old views. And, if those members have children, they are the ones that we worry about.”
Recent juries have seemed generally unsympathetic to the Followers Jurors displayed a clear-eyed focus on the legal question underlying all the cases: What would a reasonable person do in the same situation?
Their short answer: Call a doctor.
So far, all defendants have said that was something they never considered. That admission, perhaps more than any other piece of evidence, sealed the Hickmans’ fate. “For me, that was the bottom line,” jury foreman Collin Fleming said. “They didn’t do anything”
During the trial, the Hickmans testified that God determines the outcome in all matters.
“Everything that happens, whether it’s good or bad, it’s God’s will,” Dale Hickman told jurors. “If it’s not God’s will, it wouldn’t be done.”
Research resources on Followers of Christ Church, theologically a cult of Christianity
Research resources on faith healing
House Bill 2721 “Eliminates reliance on spiritual treatment as defense to certain crimes in which victim is under 18 years of age” [Full text ]