3 May 2011

Faith healing parents convicted of homicide for daughter's death from untreated diabetes lose appeal for new trials

Wausau Daily Herald   -  Wisconsin     April 28, 2011

Judge Vincent Howard denies appeals of Dale and Leilani Neumann in prayer death convictions

The Weston parents convicted of second degree reckless homicide in the death of their daughter, Madeline Kara Neumann have lost their appeal for new trials. Marathon County Judge Vincent Howard ruled this afternoon to deny the post-conviction motions of Dale and Leilani Neumann.

Kara died March 23, 2008, from complications of undiagnosed diabetes while the Neumanns, who believe in faith healing, prayed for the girl's recovery.

Dale Neumann argued he should get a new trial because jurors in his prayer-death trial could have been biased after learning that his wife was previously convicted in the case. Leilani also appealed on grounds she was improperly defended in a separate second-degree homicide trial in 2009.

Judge Howard, who oversaw the separate trials for Dale and Leilani, wrote that “hindsight” was not enough reason to overturn “strategic decisions” made by the couple’s attorneys.

Dale’s defense attorney and prosecutors came to a joint decision to inform the jury of Leilani’s prior conviction, rather than risk members of the jury who were unaware of the conviction finding out at trial, Howard wrote.

“It is admittedly extraordinary to actually inform potential jurors of a prior conviction of a co-defendant, but there is no real denying that these trials were also very extraordinary,” Howard wrote.

Leilani’s argument that her trial attorney should have put stronger emphasis on her sincere belief that prayer is a form of treatment also was rejected by Howard. The judge wrote that attorney Gene Linehan had to make a quick decision during his closing argument, following prosecutors’ attempt to portray Leilani as a “religious extremist.”

“Hindsight can sometimes reveal places where there is room for improvement,” Howard wrote. “Trial counsel certainly could have better explained and emphasized the sincere belief defense...but room for improvement is not the same as deficient performance.”

Steve Miller, Dale Neumann’s attorney, said this afternoon that he hadn’t seen the decision yet and declined comment. A message left with Leilani Neumann’s attorney was not immediately returned.

Both Dale and Leilani Neumann were sentenced in October 2009 to six months in jail, 10 years probation and 120 hours of community service. Howard delayed the jail terms pending appeals.

They are also required to have their remaining juvenile children regularly examined by health officials.

Marathon County Assistant District Attorney LaMont Jacobson, who tried both Neumann cases, said his office was “certainly pleased with the outcome.”

The Neumanns’ attorneys raised some issues that “were troubling,” particularly the jury being informed of Leilani’s prior conviction, Jacobson said.

“We were all in a position where we had to balance (Dale’s) right to a fair trial, to a speedy trial and his right to have the trial occur in Marathon County,” Jacobson said. “And it was all with the backdrop of Leilani’s conviction.”

Jacobson said he suspects both Dale and Leilani Neumann will appeal Howard’s decision to the Court of Appeals, where the prosecution will be represented by the state attorney general’s office.

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U.S. courts in medical neglect cases give more lenient sentences to faith-healing parents than to non-believers

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  1. Lawyers ask Wis. court to rule in prayer death

    By TODD RICHMOND, Associated Press | December 4, 2012

    MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A couple who prayed instead of taking their daughter to the hospital as she lay dying at their home were rightfully convicted of homicide, a state attorney told the Wisconsin Supreme Court on Tuesday in a case that raises questions about when prayer healing turns criminal.

    Attorneys for Dale and Leilani Neumann argued that the couple didn't know when the state's legal protections for prayer healing ended and criminal liability began.

    But Assistant Attorney General Maura Whelan told the justices that Wisconsin's religious protections clearly don't apply when a child dies and the couple caused the death of their 11-year-old daughter, Madeline Kara, who was suffering from undiagnosed diabetes.

    "They created an unreasonable and substantial risk of death," Whelan said. "They did so knowingly and they caused Kara's death."

    The Neumanns are appealing their conviction in a case that poses charged questions for the justices about when the state's responsibility to protect children trumps religious freedom.

    More than a dozen states have some form of legal protection for parents who choose to heal their children through prayer rather than seek conventional medical help, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The states have been grappling for years with how far those protections extend, but never before have Wisconsin's courts been asked to address when an ailing child's situation is so serious that prayer treatment becomes illegal.

    "The court is left with very difficult legal questions in a tragic case," Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson told the attorneys as Tuesday's oral arguments ended.

    It's unclear when the court might rule. The justices face no deadline and they often take months to issue decisions.

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  2. Madeline Kara died on Easter Sunday in March 2008 in her parents' Weston home after developing a treatable form of diabetes. Her parents chose to pray for her rather than seek medical help. After she died, they insisted God would raise her from the dead.

    Marathon County prosecutors charged the couple with second-degree reckless homicide. Separate juries convicted each of them in 2009. They each faced up to 25 years in prison but a judge sentenced them each to serve a month in jail for six years, with one parent serving every March and the other every September, and spend a decade on probation.

    Still, their attorneys appealed. They maintain the couple was wrongly convicted, pointing to a state law that protects people who provide spiritual treatment for a child in lieu of medical help from child abuse charges.

    They argue the law protects parents through the point of creating a substantial risk of the child's death, making it difficult to know when a situation has grown so grave that parents who stick with prayer healing expose themselves to other criminal charges.

    "They believed prayer was the best thing for her," Leilani Neumann's attorney, Byron Lichstein, told the justices. "How do they know when that prayer treatment becomes illegal?"

    Whelan argued that anyone who reads the protection statute would realize it applies to child abuse charges, not homicide. Once parents realize a child is in danger of dying, their legal immunity ends, the attorney said.

    The Neumanns had to have known their daughter was nearing death after she lapsed into coma and turned blue, triggering a legal duty to protect her by seeking medical help, Whelan said.

    "You can treat this child through prayer, but you better make sure this child doesn't die," Justice Annette Ziegler said, summing up Whelan's arguments.

    Both Lichstein and Dale Neumann's attorney, Steven Miller, conceded that legal immunity for prayer healing ends when it's clear a child is going to die. But the Neumanns' daughter showed some signs of improvement before she passed away, they said.

    Justice Patience Roggensack noted the juries decided the girl was in danger of dying. She questioned why the justices shouldn't rely on the juries' determinations that the couple crossed the line.

    But the justices said little else during Tuesday's hearing that shed light on their feelings on the case, instead mostly focusing their questions on making sure they understood both sides' stances.


  3. Court upholds homicide convictions of parents who chose prayers for dying daughter over medical care

    Wisconsin State Journal July 3, 2013

    A mother and father who prayed instead of seeking medical help as their daughter died in front of them were properly convicted of homicide, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

    Eleven-year-old Madeline Kara Neumann died of undiagnosed diabetes on Easter Sunday in March 2008 at home in the central Wisconsin village of Weston. Prosecutors said her parents, Dale and Leilani Neumann, ignored obvious symptoms of severe illness as Kara became too weak to speak, eat, drink or walk, choosing to pray rather than take her to a doctor.

    The Supreme Court's decision said the Neumanns don't belong to any organized church but believe visiting a doctor amounts to worshipping an idol rather than God.

    As Kara's condition worsened they resisted suggestions from her grandmother to take her to a doctor. Kara's grandfather suggested giving her Pedialyte, a supplement used to combat dehydration in children, but Leilani Neumann said that would take the glory away from God.

    Dale Neumann testified that the possibility of death never entered their minds. After she died, Leilani Neumann told police God would raise Kara from the dead.

    Doctors testified that Kara would have had a good chance of survival if she had received medical care before she stopped breathing.

    Marathon County prosecutors charged the couple with second-degree reckless homicide. Separate juries convicted them in 2009. They each faced up to 25 years in prison, but a judge instead ordered them to serve a month in jail every year for six years, with one parent serving every March and the other every September.

    The couple's attorneys argued that Wisconsin law protects people from being charged with child abuse if they provide spiritual treatment for a child in lieu of medical assistance. They contended the law protects parents from criminal liability through the point of creating a substantial risk of death, making it difficult to know when a situation has become so serious that parents who stay with prayer healing become criminally liable. State attorneys countered that parents are immune from child abuse charges but not homicide counts, arguing that once they realize a child could die, their immunity ends.

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  4. More than a dozen states have some form of legal protection for parents who choose prayer healing for their children over conventional medical attention. But they've been wrestling for years with how far those protections go.

    Wisconsin's 3rd District Court of Appeals sent the Neumanns' appeal straight to the state Supreme Court without ruling on it, calling the case unique.

    In a 6-1 decision released Wednesday, the state Supreme Court found criminal immunity for treatment by prayer has clear limits and that the Neumanns went too far.

    "The juries could reasonably find that by failing to call for medical assistance when Kara was seriously ill and in a coma-like condition for 12 to 14 hours, the parents were creating an unreasonable and substantial risk of Kara's death, were subjectively aware of that risk, and caused her death," Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson wrote for the majority.

    Justice David Prosser, the lone dissenter, acknowledged the Neumanns' reaction to Kara's illness was so outside normal behavior that it's hard for anyone to identify with them. But he maintained state law is unclear on how far immunity for prayer treatment goes.

    "There were and are serious deficiencies in the law and they ought to be addressed by the legislature and the courts," Prosser said. "Failing to acknowledge these deficiencies will not advance the long-term administration of justice."

    Dale Neumann's attorney, Steven L. Miller, said the couple is devastated about the decision.

    "They're still mourning the loss of this child. From their perspective they felt they were acting in a legal manner," he said.

    A message seeking comment was left for Leilani Neumann's attorney, Byron Lichstein. A call to a possible residential listing for Leilani Neumann rang unanswered.

    A spokeswoman for the state Justice Department, which defended the convictions on behalf of Marathon County, declined comment.


  5. High court upholds convictions of 2 who let daughter die as they prayed

    By Ashley Luthern of the Journal Sentinel July 3, 2013

    The state Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld the convictions of a Weston couple who prayed for their dying daughter instead of seeking medical care for her.

    Dale and Leilani Neumann's 11-year-old daughter, Madeline Kara Neumann, died of untreated diabetes March 23, 2008. When she stopped breathing, her parents and their friends who were praying over her called 911.

    The couple were convicted of reckless homicide in separate trials with different juries in 2009 and each sentenced to 180 days in jail and 10 years of probation. The jail sentences were postponed while the Neumanns appealed.

    The case centered on whether the spiritual healing exception under the state child abuse and neglect law shields parents from other kinds of prosecutions. The court found it does not. The justices voted 6-1 to uphold the convictions, with Justice David Prosser dissenting.

    "The decision essentially gutted the faith healing privilege under the child abuse statute," said attorney Steven Miller, who represented Dale Neumann.

    Miller said the court made it clear that a person could be charged even if they were engaging in activity protected by the faith-healing statute and that parents cannot rely on that faith-healing privilege.

    At least one lawmaker wants to eliminate the spiritual healing exception.

    State Rep. Terese Berceau (D-Madison) said Wednesday she will re-introduce legislation in the coming week that would remove the prayer exception to Wisconsin's child abuse and neglect statutes. She originally introduced the bill in 2009, but delayed reintroduction until after the state Supreme Court's decision.

    The proposed legislation does not remove the right of an adult to reject medical treatment for faith healing.

    The Neumanns have not yet discussed or decided if they will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, Miller said.

    "They lost their child. Obviously, that was an extreme tragedy. They never expected that. To deal with a criminal trial, felony convictions and a very long appeal process, it's been painful," he said.

    If they did appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court and the court accepted the case, it would be the first time the highest court addressed a faith-healing case involving children, said Shawn Francis Peters, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor and author of "When Prayer Fails: Faith Healing, Children and the Law."

    About a dozen children die annually nationwide when parents rely on faith healing instead of medical treatment, Peters said.

    "It kind of questions our assumptions about the effectiveness of law to control behavior when it's religiously motivated behavior," he said. "For many people, adherence to their faith supersedes their adherence to the laws of the state."

    The Neumanns' attorneys had asked the state Supreme Court to reverse the convictions, arguing that state law protects prayer healers. The Neumanns do not belong to any identifiable church or religious organization but identify as Pentecostals and believe there are spiritual root causes to sickness, according to court records.

    Specifically, the Neumanns' attorneys argued that the parents' due process rights were violated because they were not duly notified that they could be criminally liable if the prayer treatment failed to save their child.

    The couple also took issue with jury instructions, and Dale Neumann argued that his jury was biased because it knew his wife already had been convicted.

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  6. An assistant attorney general told the justices that the couple placed their daughter at substantial risk of death. A parent who prays over an ailing child can't be charged with child abuse, but the state argued if the child dies, that protection doesn't apply.

    In the majority opinion, the justices agreed with the prosecutor that the treatment-through-prayer provision applies only to charges of criminal child abuse and does not create a blanket protection from criminal prosecution for a parent.

    The Neumanns also had argued that they did not know their daughter was reaching a point of "substantial risk of death" as described in the reckless homicide law because her symptoms were hard to identify.

    "If we were to adopt the parents' reasoning, no prayer-treating parent would know what point is beyond 'a substantial risk of death' until the child actually stopped breathing and died," the majority wrote.

    Miller said the Neumanns were charged with a crime of omission and the state was required to prove the couple had a duty to act. The majority opinion, however, doesn't fully address that, he said.

    "When did the Neumanns have a duty to provide professional medical care? You'll see (the majority opinion) never really answered the question other than to say maybe always," Miller said.

    Prosser raised that problem in his dissenting opinion.

    "The Neumanns claim that the reckless homicide statute is too murky to give sufficient notice as to when parent choice of treatment through prayer becomes illegal. Given the nature of (her) illness as well as the imprecision in the statutory language, I agree. There is a due process problem here," he wrote.

    Peters said that argument — "We knew our kid was sick but didn't know how sick" — is one parents often make in these cases.

    "They always say that. Courts are never convinced by that and juries aren't often convinced by that," Peters said.

    The facts in the death of Madeline, known as Kara to her family and friends, are not disputed. She died at 3:30 p.m. March 23, 2008 — Easter Sunday — after having gradually worsening symptoms of exhaustion and dehydration for a few weeks. Experts at the trials testified that she would have appeared healthy as late as the Thursday before she died.

    On Saturday, she stayed home from work at her family's coffee shop and slept all day. When her mother checked on her, the girl's legs were skinny and blue. Her parents sent an email at 4:58 p.m. Saturday asking people to pray for her daughter.

    During the trial, Kara's brother testified he believed she was in a coma, but others testified that they did not sense any danger in her condition. Leilani Neumann's sister-in-law in California called 911 after hearing about her niece's condition. When paramedics tried to measure the 11-year-old's blood sugar, it was too high for a monitor to read.

    A pediatric endocrinologist testified that diabetic ketoacidosis has a 99.8% survival rate, and Kara's chances of survival were high until "well into the day of her death."

    All the Neumann children were born in a hospital and vaccinated, but about a decade before the girl's death, Dale Neumann believed his back pain was healed through prayer. They decided not to go to doctors for treatment anymore, believing they would be "putting the doctor before God."

    The Neumann case followed the pattern of other such cases, Peters said.

    "(U)sually it's the garden-variety illness that most pediatricians can diagnose and treat in a snap," he said.