BOSTON, JULY 6 -- A judge today placed a Christian Science couple on 10 years probation for denying medical care to their dying son, and ordered periodic medical examinations for their other three children.
David and Ginger Twitchell, convicted of manslaughter in their son's death, said they would comply with the order.
"We always tried to obey the law . . . and we'll try to obey the judge's instructions," David Twitchell said after being sentenced by Suffolk Superior Court Judge Sandra Hamlin.
The Twitchells, lifelong Christian Scientists, were convicted by a jury Wednesday of recklessly and wantonly causing the death of their 2 1/2-year-old son Robyn by relying solely on prayer to heal the boy. Robyn died April 8, 1986, and an autopsy showed he suffered from a congenital defect that had caused a bowel obstruction.
Hamlin placed the Twitchells, who faced up to 20 years in prison, on probation for 10 years and said that they must take their children to periodic health checkups under guidelines for children set by the American Medical Association.
She said a doctor should be called at "any signs of serious illness" in the children -- Elias, 9 months old, Brian, 2 years old, and Jeremy, 8.
Hamlin asked to receive monthly reports and said she would call for an immediate hearing if there were any violations of the conditions. She denied a defense motion to stay the sentence pending the outcome of an appeal, which was filed Thursday.
In a brief statement after the sentencing, David Twitchell said that while he would obey the judge's order, he would "always pray first" for his children's health. "We have never ruled out medical care. We just feel prayer, God's power, is a lot better," he said.
Nathan Talbot, a spokesman for the Boston-based Christian Science Church, said the sentencing was "the state's effort to impose its own view" on where the government should draw the line on freedom of religion. "It's an effort to re-educate Christian Scientists into the state's view of what healing ought to be," he said.
Medical experts applauded the verdict, saying it would protect children. "No religion is going to be allowed to be a defense against abuse and neglect," said Michael Grodin, a pediatrician and medical ethicist at Boston University. "The bottom line is we have to have standards for protecting children."
The trial attracted national attention, in part because it was held in Boston, headquarters of the Christian Science Church, which teaches that sickness and disease can be healed by spiritual means alone. Church officials have said the case represents an attack on their religion and expressed confidence it would be overturned on appeal.
Since 1980, there have been seven prosecutions of Christian Scientist parents. Five have been convicted, one acquitted and one case was thrown out, according to children's rights activist Rita Swan, a former Christian Scientist who seeks such prosecutions.