OREGON CITY — Clackamas County Circuit Court Judge Steven Maurer sentenced Jeffrey and Marci Beagley to 16 months in prison this afternoon, calling the couple’s decision to not seek medical care for their 16-year-old son, Neil Beagley, a “crime that was a product of an unwillingness to respect the boundaries of freedom of religious expression.”
Marci Beagley sobbed as the sentencing was read, and shortly after, defense attorney Wayne Mackeson objected to the prison time. The sentence also includes three years of post-prison supervision.
Jeffrey and Marci Beagley were found guilty of criminally negligent homicide after a two-week trial that focused on the death of 16-year-old Neil Beagley, who died in June 2008 of complications involved with a urinary tract obstruction.
“The idea of sending Jeffrey and Marci Beagley to prison is heart-wrenching,” Maurer said in a lengthy explanation of his sentence. “I think, certainly, that I’m in complete agreement with the jurors who observed that the Beagleys are good people.”
But the decision was necessary, he said. “The magnitude of their crimes simply warrants it.”
Maurer touched upon religious freedoms, saying he thought the community was very respectful to beliefs from congregations like the Followers of Christ Church, which believes in faith-healing at the exclusion of most medical care.
But there are boundaries for religious freedom, he said.
“It is up to us as a community and a criminal justice system, and government, to take very seriously that societal obligation €¦ and recognize that investment and interest we have in each and every child,” he said.
Too many children had died unnecessarily because of the church’s beliefs, Maurer said: “It needs to stop.”
The sentence could be a “pause for reflection” or re-examination for the Followers of Christ church, said Maurer, who added that he believed the church was capable of “softening the rigidity” of their beliefs on excluding medical care.
The Beagleys and Worthingtons are members of the Followers of Christ Church. Members of the Oregon City church have a lengthy history of child deaths from lack of medical care that influenced a 1999 law eliminating the religious freedom defense in cases involving the welfare of a child.
Maurer repeated something he stated during the Worthington sentencing, which was also echoed by defense attorneys during the Beagley trial: the case was not a referendum on the church.
But ignoring the church’s impact on the couple would be self-deluding, he said. “The church is imprinted upon them,” he said.
Judge says sentence was necessary as deterrant to other church members
Maurer made it clear that the sentence was a direct attempt to deter other members of the Oregon City-based Followers of Christ Church from relying on faith healing to the exclusion of medical care.
“The fact of the matter is that Jeffrey and Marci Beagley are in large measure a product of the church,” he said. “The church has imprinted on them their beliefs, their attitudes, their concepts of their responsibilities in a matter that permeates this case. Decisions that were made and were not made by Jeff and Marci Beagley really are the core result of their adherence and their devotion to their church. So there really is no meaningful way to escape it, and we’re deluding ourselves if we pretend otherwise.”
He said other formal and informal attempts to work with the church to get them to recognize serious conditions and seek medical treatment had failed, as evidenced by the deaths of Neil and his niece, Ava Worthington.
“If one member of the Followers of Christ Church, on young couple find their child in distress and, being called upon by other members of the church to lay on hands, to just pray harder, if just one young couple says, ‘you know, I think this is the kind of situation we need to call for help’ €¦ if just one child survives, this (sentence) is worth it,” he said.