MILWAUKEE, Aug. 28 — Terrance Cottrell Jr., an autistic 8-year-old, died on the floor of a hot, dingy storefront church in a forgotten strip mall.
His shirt was drenched in sweat when the congregants who were holding him down, saying they wanted to rid him of demons, finally noticed that he was dead. He had urinated on himself, and his small brown face had a bluish cast.
Terrance, who was supposed to start third-grade special-education classes at 65th Street Elementary School next Tuesday morning, will instead be buried here on Friday, exactly a week after he died of asphyxiation, a victim of the prayer service intended to save him. The medical examiner has ruled the death a homicide.
As relatives and neighbors on the city’s North Side mourned for Terrance this week with small tributes — three stuffed animals and a few room-deodorizer candles on the window ledge of his apartment, a photocopy of his picture taped to the church door — some also denounced prosecutors’ plans for the case as far too lenient.
Ray A. Hemphill, a 45-year-old preacher who led the spiritual healing service for Terrance last Friday night, has been charged with felony child abuse, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison and five years of court supervision. No one else involved in the service has been charged.
According to the criminal complaint against Mr. Hemphill, he told investigators that he had been leading sessions to help Terrance for three weeks before the boy’s death. During those sessions, Mr. Hemphill said, he and others would pray, sing and force Terrance to lie on the floor, holding down his feet, arms, head and chest when he struggled to get up, kicking and scratching.
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The point, Mr. Hemphill said, was to deliver the boy from demons that were believed to possess him, as revealed by his erratic behavior: the way he jumped from his chair and made loud noises.
Mr. Hemphill was freed from jail on Wednesday until his next court hearing, on Sept. 8, on the condition that he promise to conduct no further spiritual healing sessions or exorcisms. He could not be reached for comment today, but investigators quoted him as saying he had received no formal training as a minister, aside from a calling from the Lord, and had been ordained by his brother.
The brother, David E. Hemphill, pastor of the tiny, independent Faith Temple Church of the Apostolic Faith, where Terrance died, said the Hemphill family would have nothing more to say about what had happened.
But Mary Luckett, Terrance’s grandmother, said that the spiritual healing sessions should never have occurred and that Mr. Hemphill ought to face more serious charges.
“How can a child be dead and these people get charged with child abuse?” Ms. Luckett said. “I can’t even understand what these people are thinking. I don’t care if it was a church. I don’t care what they were trying to do.”
Prosecutors defended their decision to pursue nothing more than abuse charges against Mr. Hemphill, saying that under Wisconsin law, they could not win a conviction for second-degree reckless homicide, or some even more serious homicide charge, without proving that he had been aware that his actions could create a substantial risk. That would have been difficult to show, if not impossible, said Mark Williams, an assistant district attorney.
“That is a subjective test,” Mr. Williams said. “What matters from a legal sense is what was in his mind when he was doing what he was doing. And in his mind, he was trying to help this child.”
That religious practices were involved complicates the legal situation, Mr. Williams acknowledged. “This wasn’t a normal situation,” he said.
Critics, including some legal scholars, said the case reflected a general discomfort among prosecutors with trying to draw lines where religion is involved.
“If the child had died in a home, there’d be a whole array of charges, maybe including child abuse but also homicide, or manslaughter,” said Marci A. Hamilton, a professor at the Cardozo School of Law in New York. “When a religious entity enters the picture, prosecutors get very nervous.”
Professor Hamilton described a child abuse charge in such a case as “extraordinarily weak” and said the decision sent a devastating signal.
“It sends a message that if you are doing anything — whether it’s holding down a child or refusing to give them medical treatment, or whatever it is — if it’s religious, then they’re not accountable to the laws,” she said. “And that’s not right.”
Terrance, whose autism was diagnosed when he was 2 years old, was not an easy child, acknowledged Ms. Luckett, his grandmother. He rarely talked, and when he did, it was only a word or two. Neighborhood children said he snatched their ice-cream bars from them. His younger sister, a toddler, was the only one he seemed to obey, Ms. Luckett said.
He was being reared by his mother, Pat Cooper, who is single and in her late 20’s. She had a relationship with Ms. Luckett’s son, the boy’s father, which ended long ago, Ms. Luckett said. Repeated visits to Ms. Cooper’s home this week found her gone, and she has no listed telephone number.
Ms. Cooper, who met Mr. Hemphill and joined the church a few months ago, was part of the evening prayer sessions for her son, including the fatal one last Friday, the police said.
That night, Ms. Cooper held down one of Terrance’s feet, investigators quoted her as saying, while two other women held down other parts of his body, and Mr. Hemphill held his head and body down. By the police account, Ms. Cooper told the investigators that at one point she saw Mr. Hemphill’s knee pressed into the boy’s chest. And Mr. Hemphill, who weighs nearly 150 pounds, acknowledged lying on top of the boy, chest to chest, the police said.
The medical examiner later found extensive bruising on the back of Terrance’s neck, and said he had died of mechanical asphyxiation from pressure placed on his chest. Mr. Hemphill is quoted as saying that about two hours into the praying and the struggling, he got up, but Terrance was still.