Infant-death trial starts Tuesday

The trial of a couple whose ailing newborn daughter died when they rejected medical treatment in favor of prayer may focus more on facts than faith.

Dewayne and Maleta Schmidt are charged with reckless homicide in the August 2003 death of Rhiana Rose Schmidt, who became ill after she was born at home.

The husband and wife likely will know by the end of next week if they face prison time for not seeking medical attention for their sick daughter, who died in their home on State Road 44 west of Franklin.

The couple belong to a church that advocates prayer and faith healing over medical intervention. Instead of seeking a doctor’s help, prosecutors said, the parents called church elders to their home to pray for the child, who died less than two days later.

An autopsy found that the infant died of puerperal sepsis, an infection often acquired at birth and typically treated by antibiotics.

A grand jury decided in July that each parent should face a criminal charge of reckless homicide, a Class C felony that carries a penalty of two to eight years in prison.

Attorneys will argue the cases as one trial, but the jury will issue a verdict for each parent, said Johnson County Deputy Prosecutor Daylon Welliver, who is prosecuting the case.

While the case touches on the boundaries of freedom of religion, a series of attorney’s motions and court orders leave it unclear how large a role those issues will play in the trial.

“I think there’s going to be some of that come in, and it’s just a question of where the line is going to be drawn,” Welliver said.

That is because Judge Cynthia Emkes has issued orders restricting testimony regarding the Schmidts’ religious beliefs and those of their church, the General Assembly and Church of the Firstborn.

Prosecutors sought to bar the Schmidts from using their beliefs as a defense, while the couple’s attorney, Carrie J. Miles, sought to prevent state witnesses from characterizing the Church of the Firstborn as cultlike.

Emkes granted both requests, within limits.

While defense witnesses can testify about religious conduct — such as praying — that occurred during the infant’s birth and death, Welliver explained, the defense cannot assert religion as a defense under Emkes’ order.

Another order prohibits the state from conveying to the jury any evidence or testimony characterizing the Church of the Firstborn without first obtaining Emkes’ permission outside earshot of jurors.

The church does not have paid clergy, according to the Encyclopedia of American Religions. Instead, church elders lead services and other church activities. No official membership rolls are kept, and researchers estimate the church has dozens of independent congregations nationwide.

There are several congregations in this area, including one in Morgantown to which the Schmidts belong, one on State Road 252 near Martinsville and one on Shelby Street on the far-southside of Indianapolis.

The church’s belief in faith-healing is rooted in the elders’ interpretation of specific verses in the King James version of the Bible, primarily James 5:14-15, a church elder of the Morgantown Assembly, Tom Nation, has said.

The verses read, in part: “Is any sick among you? Let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.

“And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up.”

Children born to members of the church in Colorado and Oregon also have died after their parents refused medical treatment.

Rhiana Schmidt was the third child of parents attending the church in Morgantown to die since 1998 after family members refused medical treatment, according to published reports.

The Schmidts’ other daughter was delivered by Caesarean section after Maleta Schmidt was taken to a hospital against her religious objections, according to court documents, but that evidence was barred from being introduced.

During the past year, the Schmidts have denied multiple requests for interviews. Miles has told her clients not to discuss the situation because interviews could jeopardize the case.

Miles said speaking about the case in any way would be inappropriate before or during trial.

Johnson County Prosecutor Lance Hamner, whose office filed the charges against the couple, said the Schmidts’ case is one of the most tragic he has seen.

“Usually, we see people who are cruel or don’t care about their kids. But this is just the opposite,” he said. “Here you have a loving family and two caring parents who did love their daughter very much.”

The case brings to Johnson County a debate over the division between negligence and substantial deviation of the law, Hamner said.

“They had a duty to protect their child,” he said. “When the child’s life is in danger, that line is crossed.”

A 1986 Indiana Supreme Court case ruled that prayer is not permitted as a defense when a caretaker engages in conduct that results in the child’s death, Hamner said.

In similar cases nationwide and in Indiana during the 1980s, parents have been charged or convicted of child neglect, involuntary manslaughter or reckless homicide, he said.

If convicted, the Schmidts each could face two to eight years in prison.

Welliver has filed papers indicating he will ask for a longer penalty because of the baby’s age, because the parents violated a position of trust and because a lesser sentence would depreciate the seriousness of the situation, among other reasons.

Welliver said, after jury selection was complete on Friday, that he is not focusing on the parents’ potential sentence but wants a punishment that would “ensure this doesn’t happen in the future.”

Daily Journal staff writer Michael W. Hoskins contributed to this report.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
AP, via the Daily Journal, USA
May 7, 2005
Charles Wilson

Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday May 8, 2005.
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