OREGON CITY, Ore. (RNS) A jury on Thursday (Sept. 29) unanimously convicted an Oregon couple, Dale and Shannon Hickman, in the faith-healing death of their infant son.
Both parents were found guilty of second-degree manslaughter, a Class B felony that requires a sentence of at least six years and three months in prison under Oregon’s mandatory sentencing law. However, because of a religious exemption that was eliminated after the Hickmans were indicted, they could face less than 18 months in prison and a $250,000 fine.
After the jury left the courtroom, the Hickmans stood and embraced. Shannon Hickman pressed her face against her husband’s chest and sobbed.
The couple, who have two other children, will be sentenced Oct. 31. Prosecutors asked that they be held in jail until sentencing, but Judge Robert Herndon allowed them to remain free until then.
The Hickmans are members of Oregon City’s Followers of Christ church, which has a long history of children dying from treatable conditions because their parents relied on faith healing rather than taking them to doctors. In response to such cases, legislators this year removed religious exemptions from Oregon’s criminal statutes.
As word got out that the jury had reached a verdict, the Clackamas County courtroom filled with about 80 friends and family from the Followers of Christ church. Among those present were Carl and Raylene Worthington, another Followers of Christ couple tried in the faith-healing death of a child. Carl Worthington was convicted of criminal mistreatment and sentenced in 2009 to six months in jail. Raylene Worthington was acquitted.
David Hickman was born on Sept. 26, 2009, and lived less than nine hours.
His mother, Shannon Hickman, went into labor two months before her due date. Instead of going to a hospital, she and her husband opted to have the baby in her mother’s home. At birth, he weighed 3 pounds, 7 ounces.
The Hickmans testified that David appeared healthy then took a sudden dire turn. Dale Hickman responded by holding his newborn son, praying for him and anointing him with olive oil. The parents said they never considered calling a doctor, and the baby died quickly.
In closing arguments, defense attorney Mark Cogan maintained it is unfair to fault the Hickmans for failing to call 911. “What opportunity was there?” he asked. “What benefit would there have been?”
Prosecutors contended that the Hickmans knew their son was born dangerously premature and that he struggled from the beginning, giving them plenty of time to seek medical assistance. If they had done so, medical experts testified, there was more than a 99 percent change the baby would have survived.
“There was plenty of time to do something,” prosecutor John Wentworth said in closing arguments. “What did Shannon and Dale Hickman do? Nothing,” he said. “They didn’t even try.”
Dale and Shannon Hickman both testified in their defense.
When asked why he didn’t call 911 once he realized his infant son was failing, Dale Hickman responded, “Because I was praying.”
Shannon Hickman said that as a woman in the church, she must defer to her husband. “That’s not my decision anyway,” she said. “I think it’s God’s will whatever happens.”
Medical experts called by the prosecution challenged the defense assertion that the baby’s health was fine until he suddenly died. They testified that a baby born two months prematurely would have struggled from birth with underdeveloped lungs.
Defense attorneys contended the Hickmans were singled out for prosecution because of their religious beliefs, noting that the district attorney waited a year to file charges against them, indicting them shortly after the arrests of Timothy and Rebecca Wyland, also members of the church.
The Wylands failed to take their infant daughter to a doctor for a growth that almost destroyed her left eye. They were convicted in June of criminal mistreatment and sentenced to 90 days in jail. The back-to-back arrests of the two couples further inflamed public animosity toward the church, the defense attorneys said.
Two days after the Wylands were convicted, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber signed a law that removed the remnants of Oregon’s legal protection for parents who rely solely on faith healing to meet their children’s medical needs. The law, a direct response to the Followers of Christ cases, eliminates spiritual treatment as a defense against all homicide charges and subjects parents to mandatory sentencing under Oregon’s Measure 11.
Unless the law changes again, the Hickmans will be the last Oregon parents protected by religious exemptions to state homicide statutes.
(Steve Mayes writes for The Oregonian in Portland, Ore.)