Parents who favor faith over medicine charged in death of newborn daughter.
Indiana law and a couple’s faith in the power of God and Indiana law will clash head-on this week in a Johnson County courtroom.
Dewayne Schmidt, 36, and his wife, Maleta Schmidt, 30, are facing a single charge each of reckless homicide in the August 2003 death of their daughter, Rhianna Rose Schmidt. She died from sepsis two days after birth.
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Jury selection began Friday in Johnson Superior Court 2 with Judge Cynthia Emkes presiding. Opening statements in the trial are scheduled for Tuesday.
Prosecutor Lance Hamner said he has struggled with the case.
“This is one of the most tragic cases we’ve ever seen,” he said. “Usually, we’re dealing with people who are cruel or who don’t care about their children. Here, we have the opposite — a loving family who did care for their daughter very much. However, parents have a duty to seek medical attention when their child’s condition is life-threatening, as it was here.”
The Schmidts told investigators they relied on God to heal their daughter, said Johnson County Sheriff’s Detective Lt. Mike McElwain.
The Schmidts are members of the General Assembly and Church of the First Born, in Morgantown. Some church members eschew medical treatment in favor of faith in God’s power to heal.
Church leaders could not be reached for comment, but in the past have said the church would follow its usual procedure in dealing with legal intervention.
“We’ll just pray and leave it in the hands of God,” elder Thomas Nation said last year.
Rhianna was not the first child within the church to die. In 1999, 12-year-old Bradley Glenn Hamm died after his pneumonia went untreated. In 1998, 6-day-old Aspen Daniel succumbed, according to authorities, to dehydration and underdevelopment.
Criminal charges were not filed against either family.
Bradley Hamm was the second of three children of Wesley and Laronda Hamm to die. They are in a California prison after pleading guilty to child neglect leading to death.
In some neglect cases, Indiana law allows religious conviction as a defense. But in the Schmidt’s case, that defense could be trumped by an Indiana Supreme Court decision, Hamner said.
“In 1986, in a case called Hall v. State, the Indiana Supreme Court said, ‘The legislature has distinguished between child neglect, which results in serious bodily injury, and neglect which results in the child’s death. Prayer is not permitted as a defense when a caretaker engages in omissive conduct which results in the child’s death.”
Last month, the Schmidts’ attorney, Carrie Miles, of Franklin, obtained court orders limiting questions about the Schmidts’ religious beliefs and past.
Emkes barred Miles, the prosecutor’s office and any witnesses from mentioning or attempting “to convey to the jury in any manner, either directly or indirectly, any evidence/testimony that characterizes the defendants’ religion.”
Miles did not respond to requests for an interview.
Johnson County Deputy Prosecutor Daylon Welliver, who is leading the prosecution, said he agrees religion should not be an issue during the trial. In fact, Welliver said he argued for the court for even more restrictions about religion than Miles.
Henry C. Karlson, professor of law at Indiana University School of Law-Indianapolis, thinks the religious issue during trial will be unavoidable.
“Indiana law has provided a balance between religious rights and medical treatment of children,” Karlson said. “We are not going to call you a criminal for not seeking medical treatment. What we try to do is weigh the rights of parents and religion and the right of a child to live and be healthy.”
He explained that a parent with a strong religious conviction has an option to call the state and have it intervene.
“You do not have to violate your religious belief,” he said. Help is available through the Office of Family and Children.
But Karlson offered a warning.
“If the state does not get to intervene, at that point we feel the weight on the scales of justice call for some sanctions,” he said. “You can’t sacrifice your child for your religious beliefs.”
Rhianna was born Aug. 17 at her parents’ home in the 1500 block of West Ind. 44. A relative from Oklahoma acted as a midwife during the delivery, and there were complications, said David Lutz, now Johnson County’s coroner.
Relatives told Lutz that Rhianna’s umbilical cord was wrapped around her neck and arm. The baby developed difficulty breathing and her condition worsened, he said.
Church elders were called to the home to pray for the baby’s recovery. But about 12:30 a.m. Aug. 19, Rhianna died. An autopsy determined the cause of death to be sepsis. Sepsis is an infection in the blood or tissue that spreads through the body. It can be treated with antibiotics.
“We believe she would have lived if she had been taken to see a doctor,” said Johnson County Sheriff’s Maj. Steve Byerly.
The Schmidts had a previous run-in with authorities over medical care, but it ended in a successful birth.
In 1999, while six months pregnant with her first child, Maleta Schmidt became ill at home with kidney problems and was in and out of consciousness. An anonymous caller notified police, and Schmidt was taken to St. Francis Hospital in Beech Grove, where a daughter was born.
Hospital officials said that because Maleta Schmidt wasn’t competent to ask that she and her newborn daughter be released, her family could not request a discharge.
After Schmidt was deemed competent to make the request, she was discharged after 10 days.