MADISON, Wis. • A mother and father who prayed instead of seeking medical help as their daughter died in front of them were properly convicted of homicide, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
Eleven-year-old Madeline Kara Neumann died of undiagnosed diabetes on Easter Sunday in March 2008 at home in the central Wisconsin village of Weston. Prosecutors said her parents, Dale and Leilani Neumann, ignored obvious symptoms of severe illness as Kara became too weak to speak, eat, drink or walk, choosing to pray rather than take her to a doctor.
The Supreme Court’s decision said the Neumanns don’t belong to any organized church but believe visiting a doctor amounts to worshipping an idol rather than God.
As Kara’s condition worsened they resisted suggestions from her grandmother to take her to a doctor. Kara’s grandfather suggested giving her Pedialyte, a supplement used to combat dehydration in children, but Leilani Neumann said that would take the glory away from God.
Dale Neumann testified that the possibility of death never entered their minds. After she died, Leilani Neumann told police God would raise Kara from the dead.
Doctors testified that Kara would have had a good chance of survival if she had received medical care before she stopped breathing.
Marathon County prosecutors charged the couple with second-degree reckless homicide. Separate juries convicted them in 2009. They each faced up to 25 years in prison, but a judge instead ordered them to serve a month in jail every year for six years, with one parent serving every March and the other every September.
The couple’s attorneys argued that Wisconsin law protects people from being charged with child abuse if they provide spiritual treatment for a child in lieu of medical assistance. They contended the law protects parents from criminal liability through the point of creating a substantial risk of death, making it difficult to know when a situation has become so serious that parents who stay with prayer healing become criminally liable. State attorneys countered that parents are immune from child abuse charges but not homicide counts, arguing that once they realize a child could die, their immunity ends.
More than a dozen states have some form of legal protection for parents who choose prayer healing for their children over conventional medical attention. But they’ve been wrestling for years with how far those protections go.
Wisconsin’s 3rd District Court of Appeals sent the Neumanns’ appeal straight to the state Supreme Court without ruling on it, calling the case unique.
In a 6-1 decision released Wednesday, the state Supreme Court found criminal immunity for treatment by prayer has clear limits and that the Neumanns went too far.
"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," Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson wrote for the majority.
Justice David Prosser, the lone dissenter, acknowledged the Neumanns’ reaction to Kara’s illness was so outside normal behavior that it’s hard for anyone to identify with them. But he maintained state law is unclear on how far immunity for prayer treatment goes.
"There were and are serious deficiencies in the law and they ought to be addressed by the legislature and the courts," Prosser said. "Failing to acknowledge these deficiencies will not advance the long-term administration of justice."
Dale Neumann’s attorney, Steven L. Miller, said the couple is devastated about the decision.
"They’re still mourning the loss of this child. From their perspective they felt they were acting in a legal manner," he said.
A message seeking comment was left for Leilani Neumann’s attorney, Byron Lichstein. A call to a possible residential listing for Leilani Neumann rang unanswered.
A spokeswoman for the state Justice Department, which defended the convictions on behalf of Marathon County, declined comment.
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