By TODD RICHMOND
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.
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.