Oregon couple convicted in son's faith-healing death

Faithheal 

It was a home video not much different than those countless parents take of their baby's first minutes. In it, tiny David Hickman looked much like any other newborn: waving his arms, crying vigorously.

Later that night, though, the prematurely born infant started having trouble breathing. His movements slowed. His father, Dale Hickman, anointed him with olive oil, held him in his arms and watched him die. No one called a doctor--Hickman and his wife, Shannon, are members of Oregon's Followers of Christ, a faith-healing church that advocates leaving human fate in the hands of God.

The Hickmans face sentencing on Oct. 31 after a jury in Clackamas County, Ore., convicted them Thursday of second-degree manslaughter in the 2009 death of their son.

The case is the fourth in recent years involving members of the Oregon City-based church, which led Oregon lawmakers in June to end the last remnants of provisions in state law that allow spiritual healing as a defense in homicide cases. Two other children linked to the Followers of Christ have died since 2008, and a third suffered serious medical repercussions.

"The fact here is that too many children have died, unnecessarily. Needlessly. They have died. And there is a graveyard nearly full of their bodies. And it has to stop. It just has to stop," Clackamas County Circuit Judge Steven Maurer said when imposing sentence last year against parents in one of those cases, Jeffrey and Marci Beagley, whose 16-year-old son died without medical treatment for a urinary tract blockage.

They were each sentenced to 16 months in prison.

The Hickmans would face at least six years in prison under present sentencing guidelines, but because they were charged before the faith-healing exemption was removed, they are more likely to be sentenced to no more than 18 months in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Trial testimony was often gut-wrenching. The Hickmans tearfully described their baby's transformation during the nine hours between his birth at home under the care of midwives--two months premature--and his death.

He weighed just 3 pounds, 7 ounces, but appeared healthy enough that the couple didn't worry at first. Dale Hickman testified that he went to bed and expected to see his son again in the morning, but was awakened at 2:15 a.m. by a relative, who put the ailing baby in his arms.

"You did not know how much longer he would live, did you? Why didn't you call 911 at that moment of crisis?" prosecutor Mike Regan asked him, the Oregonian reported.  "Because I was praying," Hickman responded.

Prosecutors argued that at least 45 minutes elapsed between when the baby's condition began to deteriorate markedly and when he died--enough time, according to one expert witness, that there was a 99% chance that medical intervention could have saved his life. The defense argued that the infant also suffered from a bacterial infection, in addition to the underdeveloped lungs that are common to premature babies.

Shannon Hickman said she had no access to a phone but in any case relied on her husband to make the decision about whether to call for help.

"I can say what I feel, but ultimately, he decides. It's kind of a fine line because I don't want to disobey him or anger him," she said. "If I gave him my opinion, and he told me to shut up and I didn't, then my marriage could be in jeopardy. I have to submit to my husband."

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-- Kim Murphy

PHOTO: Dale and Shannon Hickman react to the guilty verdicts at their manslaughter trial in  Clackamas County Circuit Court in Oregon City, Ore. CREDIT:  Associated Press / Brent Wojahn / Pool Photo 
 
 

 
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Rene Lynch has been an editor and writer in Metro, Sports, Business, Calendar and Food. @ReneLynch

As an editor and reporter, Michael Muskal has covered local, national, economic and foreign issues at three newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. @latimesmuskal


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