August 01, 2013

Treatment through Prayer Clause Did Not Prevent Reckless Homicide Conviction

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

State v. Neumann, 2013 WL 3335046 (Wis.).

Clause in criminal child abuse statute that created exception for parents treating their children through prayer did not prevent prosecution for reckless homicide because homicide statute had a requirement of knowledge of the risks that  distinguished it and reduced vagueness for constitutional purposes.

A child had suffered worsening symptoms for several weeks including frequent thirst and urination, weakness, and exhaustion. Up until four days before her death, the parties agreed that she would have appeared fairly healthy to the casual observer. The day before she died, she slept all day, her legs were skinny and blue, and she collapsed. By the evening the night before she died, she was unable to walk or speak. One sibling testified that she appeared to be in a coma that night. The family tried unsuccessfully to feed and provide her water. 

The parents indicated at trial that they believed that illnesses were caused by spiritual forces and prayer and strong belief could cure any health problems. The day before their daughter died, they began constant prayer. They also enlisted the help of others through a listserv posting: “Help our daughter needs emergency prayer!!! We need agreement in prayer over our youngest daughter, who is very weak and pale at the moment with hardly any strength.” 

The next day she continued to be unresponsive, though she moaned unintelligibly. That afternoon of her death, an aunt and a family friend called 911. An ambulance took her to the hospital where she could not be revived. Doctors determined she died of diabetic ketoacidosis resulting from untreated juvenile diabetes. At trial the emergency room doctor testified that her condition was likely treatable with a near 100% success rate, even up until the day of her death. By the time she was brought to the hospital however, she did not have a pulse and was not breathing. 

The parents were charged and convicted in separate jury trials of second-degree reckless homicide. Both parents appealed and the case was heard by the Wisconsin Supreme Court.  

On appeal, the parents argued that they were not provided fair notice that their actions were criminal as required by the due process clause. They argued the reckless homicide statute criminalized their actions while the criminal child abuse statute made an exception for treatment through prayer. 

The reckless homicide statute provided criminal liability for someone who “creates an unreasonable and substantial risk of death or great bodily harm to another.” The criminal child abuse statute contained the language a “person is not guilty of an offense under this section...solely because he or she provides a child with treatment by spiritual means through prayer lieu of medical or surgical treatment.”

While the two statutes did not cross-reference one another to make the prayer exception apply directly to the reckless homicide section, the parents contended it caused confusion, prohibiting their conviction. 

The Wisconsin Supreme Court held that if the legislature meant to shield parents from liability under other criminal statutes, it could have done so. Rather, it wrote, the text of the statutes show their elements are distinct. 

Crucially, the reckless homicide statute required the state prove that the parent was subjectively aware of the risk of great bodily harm and caused the death. Under the child abuse statute, the state merely must prove the parents disregarded the risks and caused a great risk of bodily harm.

The Court found the mens rea requirement effectively lowered any vagueness because it prevents convictions unless the actor knew of the risk.

Because the statutes were distinguishable, the court found the parents’ contention that the statutes were contradictory and unconstitutionally vague without merit.

Because the child was in a coma-like state for many hours, the juries could have reasonably concluded they were aware of the serious risk and because any earlier treatment would have saved their daughter, that they caused her death. 

Based on the above, the supreme court affirmed the convictions.