Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Wisconsin Supreme Court upholds convictions of faith healers

The Wisconsin Supreme Court today affirmed the convictions of Dale and Leilani Neumann, the Wausau-area faith healers who had been convicted in 2009 for their roles in the death of their daughter, Kara.

I'll reading over the opinion this morning and providing analysis here.  I'll update as appropriate.

Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson wrote for the court's majority, and Justice David Prosser wrote in dissent (by himself, so it was a 6-1 ruling against the Neumanns).  There were a bunch of minor issues raised (jury instructions, ineffective assistance of counsel, etc.), but both opinions bore down on the apparent exemption for spiritual healing practices codified in Chapter 948 of the Wisconsin Code.

The really core of the majority opinion:  "In sum, when a parent fails to provide medical care to
his or her child, creates an unreasonable and substantial risk of death or great bodily harm, is aware of that risk, and causes the death of the child, the parent is guilty of second-degree reckless homicide."

 Court argues that Chapter 948 (faith healing exemption) really only protects parents under that statute and not other laws:  "... the text of the treatment-through prayer provision, Wis. Stat. § 948.03(6), does not and cannot lead parents to expect that they are immune from criminal prosecution for second-degree reckless homicide."

And reiterating the above: "A reader of the treatment-through-prayer provision cannot reasonably conclude that he or she can, with impunity, use prayer treatment as protection against all criminal charges."

"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."

So the main holding seems to be: the spiritual healing exemption to child abuse is alive and well, but it doesn't protect parents against other criminal charges (such as second-degree reckless homicide).

The court acknowledged that the Neumanns' due process claims were  like those that worked in other states: "Hermanson v. State, 604 So. 2d 775, 782 (Fla. 1992) (When considered together, the spiritual treatment accommodation provision and child abuse statutes failed to give parents noticeof the point  at which their reliance on spiritual treatment lost statutory approval and became culpably negligent. The statutory scheme in place failed to establish a line of demarcation at which a person could know his conduct was criminal.); State v. McKown, 475 N.W.2d 63, 68-69 (Minn. 1991) (The manslaughter statute failed to give the prayer-treating parents fair notice of the prohibited conduct. "[W]here the state had clearly expressed its intention to permit good faith reliance on spiritual treatment and prayer as an alternative to conventional medical treatment, it cannot prosecute respondents for doing so without violating their rights to due process.").

Both majority opinion and dissent are notable for their lack of reference to broad religious liberty issues.  There are no sweeping references to the First Amendment, or Wisconsin's protections for freedom of conscience.  They are very much focused on how much protection Chapter 948's spiritual healing provisions give parents.

Implicit in the court's opinion (I think?) is that the spiritual healing exemption is still in place to protect parents unless they cause "great bodily harm."  So, you can abuse, but that abuse can't lead to serious injury and/or death.

Prosser actually writes somewhat movingly in dissent: "It would be easy to look away from such unconventional defendants and say nothing. But the issues involved in these cases are too important for me to remain silent. First, the facts are not as black and white as they initially appear. Second, the law governing the facts is imprecise and quite confusing."

Prosser cuts to the heart of confusion regarding statutes: "There is a due process problem here. On the facts before us, the statutes are very difficult to understand and almost impossible to explain. Indeed, the statutory scheme is so difficult to explain that if a prayertreating parent were to consult an attorney on how he or she could prayer treat and stay within the bounds of the law, virtually any attorney would be at a loss to reasonably advise the client."

And he calls for legislative reform to remove ambiguity: 'This case is a tragedy in virtually every respect. I cannot say that the result of the Neumann trials is unjust.  Nonetheless, there were and are serious deficiencies in the law and they ought to be addressed by the legislature and the courts. Failing to acknowledge these deficiencies will not advance the long-term administration of justice."

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