After deliberating for more than six hours, a jury decided two Johnson County parents committed a crime when they refused medical treatment and instead chose prayer to heal their sick newborn.
Maleta and Dewayne Schmidt stood holding hands in the courtroom Thursday evening as the judge told them they each were guilty of reckless homicide in their daughter’s death nearly two years ago.
Prosecuting attorneys asked that their other two children – an infant son and a 5-year-old daughter – be ordered to receive medical care if needed. The judge stopped short of granting the request but appointed a guardian to notify the court about possible health concerns.
“I’m disappointed,” defense attorney Carrie Miles said outside the courtroom with tears in her eyes. “But we put our faith in the jury and respect what they’ve decided.”
The Schmidts will find out in about two months what their sentences will be. Possible penalties range from two years’ probation to eight years in prison.
“These are good people who don’t deserve to be (put) in the Department of Correction,” Miles said. “But that decision isn’t up to me, either.”
Following two days of testimony, the jury heard closing statements from attorneys Thursday morning and started deliberating about 11:30 a.m. They worked through lunch and dinner before reaching a decision.
“Justice was well-served today,” Johnson County Deputy Prosecutor Daylon Welliver said. “The message we hope this sends is that, when a child has a life-threatening illness, parents must take every possible precaution to safeguard them, and that includes medical care.”
The church to which the Schmidts belong, the General Assembly and Church of the Firstborn in Morgantown, advocates prayer and faith healing over medical intervention but does not require members to shun medical care.
More than three dozen family, friends and fellow church members stood silently in the courtroom after the verdicts were read.
Some stared at the ground, while others shook their heads. Most locked their eyes on the Schmidts, who stood with their backs to the crowd while talking softly with their attorney.
Dewayne Schmidt calmly thanked everyone for their support and told the crowd they could use Miles’ office to pray or discuss the verdicts privately.
Miles said her clients have not decided if they want to appeal, and that decision likely won’t be made until after their sentencing.
She described the case as one centering on religious freedom, while deputy prosecutors said the case was about the law and what the Schmidts should have done to protect their daughter.
“Both sides of this case are about faith,” Miles said in her closing statements earlier in the day. “Whether we make a choice in the government’s faith in medicine or Dewayne and Maleta’s faith in God.”
Dewayne, 35, and Maleta, 30, were both charged in the death of their daughter, who died 31 hours after birth from a blood infection typically treated with antibiotics.
Rhiana Rose Schmidt was born breech Aug. 17, 2003. The parents testified she stopped breathing and turned blue three times in the hours following her birth at home.
The Schmidts called church elders to pray for their daughter, and each time saw what they considered a recovery, they testified.
By calling church elders to pray, the Schmidts did act by seeking help based on their beliefs, they did not act recklessly, and they did not realize their child might die, their attorney said.
“They didn’t fail to act,” Miles said “They didn’t ignore the situation, they took action. They took the action they thought was best based on their faith.”
Miles said the two were being prosecuted because of their beliefs.
Judge Cynthia Emkes told jurors religion could not be used as a defense in the case but could be used to show the Schmidts did not act recklessly or ignore their daughter’s situation.
At times before her death, the couple felt so confident about Rhiana’s health that they gave her a bath, laughed with family and friends in the home and went about other household tasks.
The husband and wife went to bed believing their daughter was in good health and were shocked to learn at 12:35 a.m. Aug. 19 she had died, they testified.
Welliver said the Schmidts acted recklessly because they knew the risk of infection, were aware of her troubled first hours after birth and that medical treatment was available.
“As parents, it’s our duty to safeguard our children,” Welliver said in his closing statements. “They are brought into this world at the choice of adults, and it’s our job to give them every chance to grow up. It’s this sacred duty the defendants have violated.”
Deputy prosecutor Matt Solomon compared their actions to parents watching their child struggle while learning to swim in the deep end of a pool while they stand watching.
“Her first breaths were troubled, and (her health) was complicated by choices her parents made,” Welliver said. “This is a child that did not have to die and should not have died. They made choices that are ultimately inexcusable.”
During the trial, prosecuting attorneys drew attention to the line between science and the Schmidts’ beliefs, highlighting what they portrayed as inconsistencies in the couple’s religious practices.
The couple testified they do rely on medical science in certain cases: Dewayne wears eyeglasses, and Maleta used a home test to confirm her pregnancy in December 2002.
Maleta Schmidt also testified that she wore braces and had an eye surgery before turning 18 and joining the church, but she said she would not make the same decision again.
Deputy prosecutors asked her if she considered a home pregnancy test a tool of science or faith, and she responded it was probably science.
She defended her use of a home pregnancy test as a way to confirm her pregnancy, which she classified as a part of nature and not a medical condition.
Dewayne Schmidt, a warranty and quality engineer at KYB Manufacturing in Franklin, testified Wednesday that he uses glasses as an aid, not a medical treatment, and compared his eyeglasses to using a crutch for a broken leg.
Welliver asked Dewayne Schmidt if God could heal a broken leg or eye disease, or hear a parent’s prayer from a hospital emergency room. The father repeatedly responded, “If it’s his will.”
“They don’t get a free pass because they were practicing their religion,” Welliver said to jurors in closing statements. “Make them accountable for what never should have happened.”
Once the verdicts were read, Welliver asked the court to order the other two children receive medical treatment if they are ill, a condition that judges in at least two other states have ordered in similar cases. He was satisfied with the judge’s decision to appoint a guardian.
“That begins to address those concerns,” he said. “Their beliefs, although well-intentioned, put their children at risk. They obviously hold those beliefs strongly, and we want to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
Children born to members of the General Assembly and Church of the Firstborn in Colorado and Oregon also have died after their parents refused medical treatment.
A judge in 2001 sentenced a Colorado couple to 20 years’ probation after their 13-year-old daughter died from diabetes and gangrene when they refused to seek medical help. The parents pleaded guilty to criminally negligent child abuse as part of a plea agreement.
The case led Colorado’s legislature to remove a religious exemption from the state’s felony child abuse statute.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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