The Oregonian - February 4, 2010
Oregon and faith healing: Verdict aside, these kids still don't have a prayer
By Susan Nielsen | associate editor The Oregonian
A Clackamas County jury sent a long-overdue message to Oregon parents this week that letting your child sicken and die without basic medical care is a serious crime, no matter your religion.
That's a relief. Yet the story isn't over. Oregon law still contains confusing mixed signals about faith healing, and the state still singles out certain parents for special protection based on their religious beliefs.
As long as this holds true, Oregon will struggle to prevent or prosecute the most egregious cases of faith-based medical neglect.
And the kids -- Neil, Ava, Bo and the dozens of others -- will keep filling the graveyard of their parents' church.
Jeffrey and Marci Beagley were found guilty Tuesday of criminally negligent homicide in the death of their 16-year-old son, Neil. The boy died in June 2008 of complications from an untreated urinary blockage, as The Oregonian's Steve Mayes and news staff have reported in extensive coverage of the case. [see articles below]
Neil's illness was obvious enough to trigger a call to a state hot line several months before his death. His parents knew he was ill: The father carried him to the bathroom when he was too weak to stand, and the mother recorded his baby-size spoonfuls in a food journal when he grew too sick to eat meals.
Yet the Beagleys didn't seek medical care. They belong to the Followers of Christ church in Oregon City, which shuns modern medicine and says seeing a doctor is a sign of spiritual weakness. So the Beagleys demonstrated their faith by withholding medical care and holding prayer vigils instead.
They said it was Neil's choice, too.
Thankfully, the jury didn't buy this defense. They heard the father say during testimony that he might not take his son to the doctor even if the boy was hit by a car. ("It depends on how bad it is," the father explained.) They heard the mother shift responsibility to her son. ("I suppose we could have forced him to go," she said.)
The jury also knew the Beagleys are no strangers to the stakes involved. Last year, their baby granddaughter Ava died of a treatable illness after the baby's parents -- their daughter and son-in-law -- chose to withhold basic medical care in the name of religion.
So the jury voted to convict the Beagleys. Sentencing is scheduled for Feb. 18. What's left now is a nagging feeling that Oregon remains an accomplice to faith-based crimes.
For example, it's considered child neglect under Oregon law to "fail to provide adequate food, clothing, shelter or medical care that is likely to endanger the health or welfare of the child." This law would be straightforward enough without additional language favorably singling out parents who choose religion as their sole form of care.
Also, Oregon gives faith-healing parents some legal protections from being charged with murder or first-degree manslaughter. The Legislature eliminated the spiritual defense for several types of crimes about a decade ago, after a string of child fatalities, but kept a few special protections in place.
To top it off, the state grants favorable treatment to faith-healing parents during sentencing. These parents get a rare exemption from the state's mandatory sentencing laws based not on their actions or individual circumstances but solely on their religious beliefs.
What a blessing that must be.
Jeffrey and Marci Beagley would face 16 to 18 months behind bars under normal sentencing guidelines for people with no criminal history. Such a sentence sounds quite modest given their son's suffering. Yet the judge is free under Oregon law to give the Beagleys even lighter sentences, or probation instead, as a nod to their religion.
Whatever the judge decides, Oregon will need to confront an uncomfortable truth.
We show a lot more heart toward the parents in these cases than their kids.
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The Oregonian - February 2, 2010
Jeffrey, Marci Beagley found guilty in Oregon City faith-healing trial
By Steven Mayes | The Oregonian
OREGON CITY -- A Clackamas County jury sent a clear signal Tuesday that parents who rely solely on faith healing to treat their children face prison if a child dies.
Jeffrey and Marci Beagley were found guilty Tuesday of criminally negligent homicide in the death of their 16-year-old son, Neil. The boy died in June 2008 of complications from an undiagnosed congenital urinary blockage after his parents attempted to heal him with prayer, anointing with oil and laying on of hands.
They are the first members of Oregon City's Followers of Christ church convicted of homicide in the congregation's long history of children dying from from treatable medical conditions.
"This is a signal to the religious community that they should be on notice that their activities will be scrutinized," said Steven K. Green, director of Willamette University's Center for Religion and Democracy. Other prosecutors may be emboldened to take similar cases to court, the law professor said.
Prosecutor Greg Horner asked that the Beagleys immediately be taken in to custody. Clackamas County Presiding Judge Steven L. Maurer denied the request, saying the Beagleys were not a flight risk or threat to the community.
Friends and family reacted to the 10-2 verdicts with stunned silence. Marci Beagley hugged her mother in the courthouse lobby as both women wept. Other family members quietly stood by.
The Beagleys will be sentenced Feb. 18. The maximum penalty for criminally negligent homicide is 10 years, but the Beagleys likely will receive no more than 18 months in prison and could be sentenced to probation.
Steve Lindsey, who represented Marci Beagley, said he would recommend a "non-jail sentence" that would include probation and possibly other conditions, such as counseling, supervised medical care for the Beagleys' 16-year-old daughter, Kathryn, and cooperating with state child-welfare investigators. Lindsey said such a sentence could educate the Followers about their legal responsibilities as parents.
As the verdict was read and the jury was polled on Tuesday, Marci Beagley and a few of the jurors cried. The strain of the nine-day trial was apparent. Jurors, with one exception, declined to speak with reporters.
The Beagleys are considering their options and may file a appeal, said attorney Wayne Mackeson, who represented Jeffrey Beagley.
"If conviction and a prison sentence meant they would get their son back, they would do that in a heartbeat," he told reporters gathered on the courthouse steps.
Rita Swan, president of Children's Healthcare is a Legal Duty, an Iowa-based advocacy group, hailed the conviction as a victory for Oregon children.
"I know the parents are broken-hearted. But love and good intentions are not all it takes to be a good parent," said Swan, who previously lobbied Oregon legislators to limit legal protection for parents involved in faith-healing deaths.
The trial attracted national attention and was filmed gavel to gavel by TruTV for later release as a multi-part documentary on cable television.
Prosecutors focused on the Beagleys' lifelong rejection of medical care and on a family dynamic that placed immense pressure on Neil Beagley to conform to his church's reliance on faith healing.
They noted that Neil had limited contact with people outside his church who might have noticed health problems. He was home-schooled, and his social life did not extend beyond other church members.
Defense attorneys presented jurors with a picture of a typical hard-working suburban family whose lives blended daily with the secular world. They showed the jury family pictures and videos of Neil growing up and depicted the Beagleys as part of the mainstream and anything but isolated and clannish.
Three doctors testified for the defense, generally saying that Neil Beagley's symptoms wouldn't necessarily have appeared life-threatening.
In his closing argument, prosecutor Greg Horner noted that the Beagleys would not take their son to a physician but relied on medical experts to defend their actions.
It is "a rich irony," Horner said.
Jurors were asked to consider whether the Beagleys' actions were "a gross deviation" from what a reasonable person would have done in a similar situation.
The state did not have to prove that the Beagleys intended to cause Neil's death or that they knew he was going to die.
Defense attorneys downplayed the religious aspects of the case while prosecutors said the law, faith and parental duties were inseparably bound.
Neil Beagley "grew up in a world where medicine is weakness, faith is strength," prosecutor Steven Mygrant told jurors.
Neil embraced the church's belief that seeking medical care shows a lack of faith. None of his relatives used doctors. And Neil was unable to make an informed health-care decision because he didn't know he was on the verge of death, prosecutors said.
"For me, this case was not about faith healing and it was not a referendum on the church," Mackeson said. "It was about two parents who loved their son and did not know how sick he was."
The jury agreed with Mackeson -- up to a point.
The Beagleys are decent people who made a fatal mistake, said juror Robert Zegar. The couple should have known their son needed more than prayer, but they ignored warnings, including the death of another family member, Zegar said.
Last summer, another jury found church members Raylene and Carl Brent Worthington not guilty of manslaughter in the death of their 15-month-old daughter, Ava. Raylene Worthington is the Beagley's daughter and Neil Beagley's sister. Carl Worthington was convicted on a lesser charge.
Prosecutors successfully argued that they should be allowed to discuss the Worthington case because the Beagleys were present when Ava died. That pre-trial victory helped pave a path to Tuesday's guilty verdict.
Maurer's decision to allow references to the Worthington case "was a very big difference," said attorney Mark Cogan, who represented Carl Worthington. "That was the biggest difference between the two trials."
The Beagleys were at the Worthington home for 24 hours before Ava died. No one called for an ambulance or tried to revive the Ava when she stopped breathing.
Neil Beagley died three and a half months later in similar circumstances.
He became ill in March 2008 with a cold that developed into something Marci Beagley and other relatives believed could be life-threatening. The Beagleys treated him with faith healing but did not take him to a doctor.
Neil recovered but got sick again in early June 2008. After a week or so, he became too weak to walk. Jeffrey Beagley had to carry him to the bathroom. Marci Beagley fed him in small meals, but Neil couldn't keep his food down.
When he died, as with Ava Worthington, no one called 9-1-1.
Rick Bella, Nicole Dungca, Dana Tims and Yuxing Zheng contributed to this report.
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The Oregonian - February 3, 2010
Juror says conviction in faith-healing case turned on police interview with Marci Beagley
By Yuxing Zheng | The Oregonian
OREGON CITY -- As jurors agonized through two days of deliberations over the fate of Jeffrey and Marci Beagley, they kept coming back to a taped interview Marci Beagley gave police in the hours after her son, Neil, died.
Lake Oswego resident Amy Slatford said she and fellow jurors found much of the evidence in the Oregon City faith-healing trial contradictory or speculative, but the tape gave them firsthand knowledge of the Beagleys' thoughts and actions.
She said jurors relied on that interview more than any other piece of evidence in deciding Tuesday that the Beagleys were guilty of criminally negligent homicide. They will be sentenced Feb. 18.
In her interview, Marci Beagley told a detective that she and her husband wanted to respect their son's wishes to be treated with faith healing rather than taken to a doctor. She also said she generally defers to her husband in such matters.
A detective pressed the point. If you knew not taking Neil to the doctor was illegal, would that change your mind?
"Regardless of the law, I would follow my husband," Marci Beagley responded.
Slatford said that her own conclusion that the Beagleys were guilty was driven by their actions.
"The Beagleys did not call 911 when Neil stopped breathing. The Beagleys did not proceed with CPR when Neil stopped breathing," said Slatford, 26, a veterinarian's assistant. "I believe that was the strongest evidence against them. They did not believe in any kind of emergency medical care."
Neil Beagley, 16, died in June 2008 from an undiagnosed but treatable congenital urinary blockage.
Instead of taking Neil to a doctor, his parents, members of the Followers of Christ Church in Oregon City, attempted to heal him with prayer, anointing with oil and laying on of hands.
Slatford said jurors also discussed how the Beagleys believed in preventive care, making trips to the dentist or the ophthalmologist.
"But if it came down to life-saving medical treatment, I believe the Followers of Christ Church did not believe in that," Slatford said.
Jurors began deliberations with about half favoring a guilty verdict, she said.
"I'm a strong believer to do what is in your heart, and when this trial began, I believed that they should be able to practice their faith," Slatford said. "But once the Oregon law applied, there was no way to go around it."
Two jurors disagreed, but in Oregon, a 10-2 consensus is adequate for conviction.
"The two people who believed in the not guilty sentence were saying that before Neil died, they honestly believed the Beagleys did not think Neil was near death," Slatford said.
All of the jurors were "very sad," even after the group agreed on the guilty verdict. Some jurors cried during the deliberations and when the verdict was read in court.
"The jury was in strong agreement that they did not think the Beagleys were bad people," Slatford said. But their action, "unfortunately, was against the law, and that's what it came down to."
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The Oregonian - February 5, 2010
Faith and accountability: no easy answers when children die
By Steven Green | Guest Columnist
The recent criminal trials of the Beagleys and Worthingtons for the tragic deaths of their children have refocused attention on the issue of spiritual healing and the adequacy of legal responses to it. In the past three decades, hundreds of children have died nationally after their parents withheld medical treatment based on religious belief. Dozens of children may have died in Oregon under similar circumstances, with several incidents involving members of the Beagleys' church, the Followers of Christ.
How should society collectively -- acting through its child welfare and criminal justice systems -- respond when well-meaning people decide to withhold medical treatment from a child based upon the commands of their faith? Several important values intersect with this question.
On one side, parents have the authority to control the physical and spiritual welfare of their children. On the other side, parental rights are not absolute, and the state can intervene to protect the health and welfare of children. A third consideration is whether anyone can adequately speak on behalf of children on such fundamental matters of faith and health.
Oregon's response, like that of most states, has been to abolish or restrict a parent's religious "defenses" to a prosecution for child abuse or death. After all, the child is dead, irrespective of whether she was beaten or prayed over. The state's interest in protecting children and preventing future incidents is the same in either context.
But the state's compelling interest in child protection is a different matter from the adequacy of its response.
Does the state achieve its goals of protecting children and affirming human worth by prosecuting responsible parents? Some argue that these parents lack the malicious intent to harm, but that is answered by prosecutions based on parental negligence. Others claim that parents have suffered enough -- that criminal sanction only adds to their injury. This view has occasionally led to jury nullification, an unwillingness of juries to convict despite the weight of evidence.
The basic aims of criminal justice are to punish (retribution), rehabilitate and deter. Retribution is tied to culpability, so the Beagleys may deserve prison time simply because they did wrong. But the other two aims of criminal justice seem to be missing in this instance. Should the Beagleys be rehabilitated, and if so, from what? Their faith?
Equally problematic is the application of deterrence here. Do we really expect that believers in spiritual healing will be deterred from relying on prayer in the future as a result of this conviction? It's more likely the conviction will steel them to their faith. Spiritual healing defines and distinguishes these religious communities. And it's equally likely this decision will drive faith-healers further underground, out of sight of those authorities who may otherwise intervene before another tragic death occurs.
This is not an easy issue, and I offer no pat answers. I find solace in that the law allows courts to impose probation, rather than jail time, for parents who have relied on their faith. But this may be an area where the criminal justice system is ineffective in achieving society's goals.
We all recoil from the unnecessary and preventable death of a child. Let's strengthen the state's ability to prevent those deaths before they happen.
Steven Green is a professor of law and director of the Center for Religion, Law & Democracy at Willamette University in Portland.
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Faith-healing deaths reported in The Oregonian from Nov. 1998 to Jan. 2009
Fundamentalist parents on trial in 'faith healing' murder case claim it was son's free choice to shun medical care
Trial in death of infant raises questions of parental rights, religious freedom
Exploring legal issues courts must consider in cases involving parents' use of faith healing
Parents and church members knew infant was suffering, but had no thought of calling a doctor
Verdict in 'faith healing' baby manslaughter case a miscarriage of justice
U.S. courts in medical neglect cases give more lenient sentences to faith-healing parents than to non-believers
More legal protections needed for sick children whose parents reject modern medicine