Associated Press, Aug. 8, 2003
By M.R. KROPKO, Associated Press Writer
RAVENNA, Ohio – A woman who belonged to an obscure religious sect was found innocent Friday of child endangerment for breast-feeding her baby while driving, but was convicted of three lesser charges.
Catherine Nicole Donkers, 29, was found guilty of violating child-restraint laws, driving without a valid driver’s license and fleeing police while on the Ohio Turnpike in May.
Prosecutors recommended Donkers be sentenced to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine instead of the maximum one year in jail and $2,000. Judge Donald Martell said he would postpone sentencing to investigate Donkers “because I feel I need to know more about you.”
Child endangerment was the most serious charge she faced.
Donkers, who represented herself, and her husband, Brad Lee Barnhill, belong to a religion they say requires Barnhill to be responsible for punishing Donkers.
Donkers had said she did nothing wrong and was following her husband’s orders.
“We are people who do not shirk from facing the consequences of our actions. I pray that this court respects my faith,” Donkers said in closing arguments.
Donkers argued that as a Michigan resident, she was entitled under that state’s child restraint law to breast-feed while driving, even though she was driving in Ohio when she was stopped. Child restraint laws in Michigan exempt nursing babies.
But prosecutor Sean Scahill said Donkers should be punished for endangering the child’s life because the baby could have been killed even in a minor accident.
“She placed that infant between herself and the steering wheel, between herself and the air bag,” Scahill said.
Donkers said Thursday that for a short time she took both hands off the wheel to move the 7-month-old girl while the car drove in cruise control at 65 mph.
“I don’t believe there was any form of recklessness,” she said.
Donkers testified that she had stopped earlier on May 8 at a highway rest stop and fed cereal to the baby, a girl named Seren Barnhill. Donkers said she realized the baby was still hungry after she got back on the road, headed to Michigan from Pennsylvania.
“I called my husband, and he directed me to continue on, to drive to Michigan and nurse my child in the car,” Donkers said.
“It certainly isn’t a primary choice as a form of feeding my child. I certainly had no intent to harm my child. I never would,” she said.
Donkers and Barnhill — who lack a marriage license but claim to be married — belong to the First Christian Fellowship for Eternal Sovereignty, which has a history of challenging the government.
The organization, which pledges allegiance to Jesus Christ, was founded in Henderson, Nev., in the 1990s. Barnhill says he is a minister in the fellowship, which has 650 followers.
State police had pursued Donkers for several miles on the northeast Ohio highway before she stopped. She insisted on speaking to her husband before cooperating.
Testimony from a state trooper said Donkers had what appeared to be a homemade Pennsylvania identification card instead of a driver’s license.
Barnhill said the couple was living temporarily in Pittsburgh for work, but Donkers was a resident of Livonia, Mich., when arrested.