Faith Healing Couple Guilty of Murder

Their 16-year-old son died after they prayed instead of taking him to doctor.

October 06, 2008, 6:16 PM

Feb. 2, 2010— -- An Oregon husband and wife who relied on faith rather than medicine to treat their dying child were convicted today of criminally negligent homicide.

Jeffrey and Marci Beagley of Oregon City said they thought their 16-year-old son, Neil, merely had the flu when they prayed and laid hands on him during the summer of 2008. Neil actually suffered from a urinary tract blockage, and, on June 17 of that year, he died of kidney failure -- without seeing a doctor.

The jury's vote to convict was not unanimous, with two of the 12 voting against it, but Oregon allows non-unanimous verdicts in some cases.

The Beagleys could be sentenced to up to 10 years for criminally negligent homicide, but because they don't have prior criminal histories, state sentencing guidelines call for only 16 to 18 months in prison.

The judge has the discretion to give them longer sentences, however, depending on whether he decides there are aggravating circumstances. He could also reduce the sentence, even give them probation, if he feels there are mitigating circumstances.

The Beagleys were released pending sentencing, which is scheduled for Feb. 18. Until that time, they are still bound by the bail they already posted.

Authorities had accused the Beagleys of carelessly failing to realize that their child was sick enough to die. The two parents were tried for criminally negligent homicide, and their case went to the jury Friday, with prosecutors asking jurors to send them a blunt message.

"You tell the Beagleys this is not acceptable behavior," Clackamas County prosecutor Gregory Horner said in closing arguments. "It's not unfortunate events, it's criminal."

But the Beagleys had no reason to think that Neil was near death, said Wayne Mackeson, the lawyer for Jeffrey Beagley, and, far from rejecting doctors, they merely "believed in the healing powers of god."

"Neil was the crown prince of the family," Mackeson told ABC News. "If going to prison meant his (Jeffrey's) son could come back, he'd do it in a heartbeat."

The case is the latest to test the line between the freedom to believe in prayer's healing powers and the duty of parents to seek medical care when their children's lives are on the line.

Last year, Dale and Leilani Newmann of Wisconsin were convicted of second-degree reckless homicide in the death of their daughter, Kara, an 11-year-old who succumbed to diabetes after her parents prayed rather than call a doctor for her. The Newmanns have appealed their convictions.

Faith Healing Couple Guilty of Criminally Negligent Homicide

The Beagleys' daughter, Raylene Worthington, was acquitted last year of criminal charges after her 15-month-old daughter, Ava, died of an infection that Worthington treated only with prayer. Worthington's husband was convicted of criminal mistreatment.

The Worthingtons and the Beagleys attend the Followers of Christ Church, which favors faith healing over medical care.

The Beagleys argued in court that their religious beliefs absolved them of any obligation to seek medical treatment for their son. What's more, they said, Neil was himself a firm believer in faith healing and did not want to see a doctor.

Oregon offers some protection from homicide or manslaughter charges for parents whose religion leads them to reject medical care for their dying children.

Largely in response to widely reported deaths involving the Followers of Christ, the state withdrew that protection for parents like the Beagleys, who face the lesser charge of criminally negligent homicide. And while Oregon does allow children 15 years and older to seek medical care without their parents' consent, the law does not allow them to refuse treatment on their own.

More than 40 states have religious exceptions to child abuse laws for parents who practice spiritual healing, though the laws vary widely, according to Children's Healthcare Is a Legal Duty, a nonprofit that opposes such laws.

Parents have argued that those exceptions should also protect them from prosecution for favoring prayer and other faith-based practices over medicine.

State courts have varied in their rulings on the issue. A Minnesota court ordered dismissal of manslaughter charges against parents whose child died of meningitis, because the parents relied on state child abuse laws that accounted for spiritual healing. Eighteen states allow religious defenses to at least some felonies against children.

Faith Healing Couple Convicted of Homicide

In the Beagleys' case, the issue comes down to whether reasonable parents in their position would have realized that Neil could die if he weren't taken to a hospital. Members of the Followers of Christ have pointed out that their lack of experience with doctors makes them less familiar with the signs of a medical emergency than other people are, and that may have been a factor for the Beagleys.

The Beagleys also believed that Neil was suffering from the same flu-like symptoms that afflicted him in March and early April 2008, according to Mackeson. At that time, a state health officer visited the Beagleys at the request of an anonymous relative to check on Neil and concurred that the boy probably had the flu or a cold.

"I don't think the Beagleys would say they don't believe in doctors," Mackeson told ABC News. "There was a grandmother who had gone for her diabetes, and my client's (Jeffrey's) dad had gotten a finger cut off and went to a doctor, so I don't think it's as black and white as the state says. They just have a preference and belief that God will heal them."

But as Neil's condition deteriorated, his parents should have known that something was terribly wrong -- and far beyond the powers of prayer, prosecutors argued. He was weak, vomiting repeatedly and unable to leave his bed as his body created toxic levels of waste that eventually stopped his heart.

"No other parents would have put up with this," Horner told the jury. "If Neil Beagley had been in any other family, he'd be alive today."

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