Preacher going on trial in autistic boy’s death

On a warm Friday night last August, an autistic 8-year-old went with his mother to a strip-mall church where a school janitor moonlighting as a preacher said he could cast out the demons twisting the boy’s development.

After an intense two-hour prayer session that brought the preacher chest-to-chest with little Terrance Cottrell Jr. while others held the boy’s limbs, the preacher’s shirt was soaked with sweat and the boy had, at some point, stopped moving.

Nobody noticed when Terrance died, according to what those present told police.

Tuesday morning, the preacher, Ray A. Hemphill, will go on trial for what happened that night in his Faith Temple Church of the Apostolic Faith. He faces a charge of felony child abuse, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison and five more on extended supervision, because Milwaukee County District Attorney E. Michael McCann said he didn’t think a homicide charge would stick.

In a written report last year, the Milwaukee County medical examiner’s office ruled the death a homicide by suffocation “due to external chest compression.”

McCann said last year that he could not prove Hemphill knew that what he was doing was likely to kill the boy. He declined to comment further on the charge.

“I’m just uncomfortable right before the trial commenting on the evidence,” he said.

The case has drawn a level of national attention not seen in a Wisconsin courtroom since former Green Bay Packer Mark Chmura’s 2001 sexual assault trial. Court TV plans to broadcast the trial live.

Within that spotlight, a jury will be asked to decide whether Hemphill should be punished for what happened during what prosecutors call an “exorcism” but his attorney calls a “prayer service.”

“This was at least the ninth or 10th prayer service,” said Thomas Harris, Hemphill’s attorney. “Nothing went wrong the first eight times.”

Harris would not say whether Hemphill will take the stand in his own defense or why his client hasn’t made a plea agreement in the case. He did say he’ll base Hemphill’s defense around the findings of a toxicologist, John P. Bederka Jr., who wrote in a letter to the court that the autopsy found “toxic blood levels of at least two drugs” – the antihistamine brompheneramine and the anti-psychotic ziprasidone – in the boy’s system.

“That’s what I’m saying. I’m saying it’s the drugs,” Harris said.

Assistant District Attorney Mark Williams would not elaborate on his plans to prosecute or whether the other people present during the exorcism – Cottrell’s mother and two other women – will face prosecution for their roles.

Court filings indicate Williams is waiting until after Hemphill’s trial to make the final decision on criminal charges for the women so their testimony against Hemphill won’t be restrained by their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

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