8 Oct 2008

Prosecutors Defend Charges In Prayer Death Case

TMJ4 Milwaukee - October 7, 2008
Associated Press

WAUSAU - The parents accused of praying while their 11-year-old daughter died of untreated diabetes had "fair notice" of their duty to take her to a doctor if needed, prosecutors argued Tuesday in defending the charges.

"The suggestion by the defendant that parents don't instinctively know their obligations to their children is frightening and without merit," Marathon County District Attorney Jill Falstad and Assistant District Attorney LaMont Jacobson wrote.

They asked a judge to deny Dale and Leilani Neumann's request to dismiss second-degree reckless homicide charges.

The 10-page brief is the latest development in an expected long legal fight that could reach the state Supreme Court.

The couple's daughter, Madeline, died at their Weston home on Easter after becoming too weak to speak, eat, drink or walk, prosecutors said. They claim the girl likely had symptoms for weeks and perhaps months that should have prompted her parents to seek treatment.

Leilani Neumann, 40, has said the family believes in the Bible, which says healing comes from God, and she never expected her daughter to die as they prayed for her. The parents told investigators the girl had not been to a doctor since she was 3.

Dale Neumann, 46, considered his daughter's illness "a test of faith," the criminal complaint said.

Second-degree reckless homicide is punishable by up to 25 years in prison. The parents have pleaded not guilty. No trial date has been set.

The parents' attorneys want Circuit Judge Vincent Howard to dismiss the charges and say the reckless homicide law is "unconstitutionally vague" as it applies to the allegations in the complaint. The parents also contend the charges unconstitutionally infringe on their right to freedom of religion.

Falstad and Jacobson refuted both claims Tuesday.

"Simply put, the parents have a right to practice their religion," the prosecutors wrote. "The child has a right to life. No rational person can dispute that the state has a compelling interest and responsibility in preserving the lives of its youngest citizens."

At the heart of the dispute are two Wisconsin laws. One says it is not child abuse to treat illness through prayer alone. The second is a homicide law that makes no exception for prayer.

Attorneys for the parents contend the laws' inconsistency violates the parents' due process rights because they did not have "fair notice" that what they were doing was prohibited.

Howard has already said there is no legal precedent in Wisconsin for settling the dispute. A hearing on the issue is set for Nov. 3, and Howard is expected to make a ruling by Nov. 28.

High courts in four states -- California in 1988, Minnesota in 1991, Florida in 1992 and Massachusetts in 1993 -- have ruled on similar disputes, reaching different results, according to the state's brief.

The Marathon County prosecutors argued that if the Wisconsin Legislature wanted to create a "prayer exception" in the homicide law, lawmakers wouldn't "hide it" in the child abuse law as defense attorneys claim.

If the judge finds otherwise, the prosecutors said, the charges still shouldn't be dismissed without a hearing that delves into the couple's religious beliefs.

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