Monday, April 28, 2008

Parents charged in Neumann faith-healing case

The district attorney of Marathon County, Wisconsin, announced today that the parents of Kara Neumann will be charged with second-degree reckless homicide, a felony punishable by up to 25 years in prison.

In her press conference, the DA, Jill Falstad, acknowledged that she was essentially blocked from charging the couple under the state's abuse and neglect laws because they contain provisions that explicitly protect parents who treat their children with prayer rather than medical or surgical treatment. The reckless homicide statute contains no such caveats.

The Neumanns' attorneys almost certainly will seek to have the charges dismissed on the grounds that their right to due process of law has been violated. They probably will argue (in effect) that Wisconsin law is contradictory, and thereby unfair, in that conduct protected under one part of the law (the child abuse statute) apparently is not protected under another part of the law (the reckless homicide statute).

There isn't much precedent in Wisconsin for this defense, but it has proven very effective in some other jurisdictions, including Minnesota. In 1990, prosecutors there tried a similar end-run around a religious-healing exemption, and three different courts (the trial court, the state court of appeals, and the state supreme court) ruled against them. The courts all ruled that (as one opinion put it) that the laws "provided 'inexplicably contradictory' definitions of prohibited behavior so as to violate due process requirements." The precedent in that case (State v. McKown) isn't directly controlling in Wisconsin, but it almost certainly will be invoked by the defendants. To find the appeals court's ruling in that case, see 461 N.W. 2d 720.

(Please note that this Minnesota case is not the civil suit made famous in Lundman v. McKown, although they involved the same defendants. The "inexplicably contradictory" ruling was in the criminal matter.)

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