The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Faith-healing parents convicted in newborn’s death lose appeal to top court

Dale and Shannon Hickman leave the courtroom after receiving guilty verdicts at their manslaughter trial at Clackamas County Circuit Court in Oregon City, Ore., on Sept. 29, 2011. (Brent Wojahn/Pool via AP)
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David Hickman was so small when he was born, family members fashioned miniature diapers from a beanie cap and poured breast milk into his mouth with a spoon. He had come into a religious family, one that wanted him to be born at home and trusted only God to take care of him.

It was Sept. 26, 2009, and David had arrived two months premature, weighing 3 pounds, 7 ounces, according to court documents. Despite his small stature, his parents said, he had a healthy glow and strong cry. But hours later he was dying — the color and muscle tone falling from his face.

His father “ran into the room where one of his aunts was holding David and anointed David’s head with olive oil and began to pray,” the Oregon Supreme Court wrote last week in an opinion. “He sat in a chair by the bed, held David in his arms, and prayed. … Over the next few minutes, David turned blue, then gray.”

His parents, Dale and Shannon Hickman, were later found guilty of manslaughter for failing to seek medical attention for their newborn son. The conviction was upheld last week by the Oregon Supreme Court, meaning the couple will continue to serve their six-year prison sentence.

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The case has been in and out of court for years, drawing continued criticism to the Hickman’s faith. The two are longtime members of Oregon City’s Followers of Christ church, a nondenominational congregation born from the Pentecostal movement. The faith group came under fire in the late 1990s when several children died from conditions that medical experts said could have been treated.

Instead of seeking medical help, members turned to faith.

“They believe that God heals, which all Christians believe, but they take it a step further, thinking that God always heals,” Jonathan Merritt, an author and religion columnist, told The Washington Post. “Most Christians have not interpreted scripture as a sort of universal promise that faith will always lead to healing. But there are some popular movements in America that still hold those views. Even those movements, however, don’t believe you should withhold medicine; they believe medicine is used as a conduit to healing.”

“It’s a dangerous belief that has come back to haunt them,” Merritt said of the Hickmans’ faith. “If your religious belief endangers a minor, you should be held accountable for that.”

Indeed, nine hours after David was born, he was dead. The state medical examiner said the cause of death was staphylococcus pneumonia, a bacterial infection that attacks the lungs.

Over the years, such deaths moved lawmakers in the state to scrap religious shield laws that protect parents in similar situations, according to Religion News Service.

In 2011 — two years after David’s death — the Hickmans were convicted of second-degree manslaughter and sentenced to six years and three months in prison, the Oregonian reported.

Prosecutors had argued that the couple knew their son was dangerously premature, pointing to testimony from medical experts who said that a baby born two months early has more than a 99 percent chance for survival with medical treatment, the Oregonian reported at the time. Without treatment, the baby would have “zero” chance, according to court documents.

“There was plenty of time to do something,” prosecutor John Wentworth said during closing arguments at the time, according to the Oregonian. “What did Shannon and Dale Hickman do? Nothing. They didn’t even try.”

Their defense attorney, Mark Cogan, maintained there was no time.

“What opportunity was there?” he said during the 2011 trial. “What benefit would there have been?”

The Hickmans said at the time that given the chance, they would not have done anything differently.

“We do what the Bible tells us, and we put God first and ask for faith,” Shannon Hickman said, according to court documents. “If we don’t have the faith, then we seek medical treatment because it is not there, you know.”

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The Hickmans appealed the case all the way to the Oregon Supreme Court, claiming that the Oregon Constitution’s religious freedom provisions  required state to prove that the couple knew their religious practices would cause their son to die. The court last week rejected their plea.

“That’s exactly what the Oregon Supreme Court held in a decision 20 years ago, so I find it very troubling that the court would be abandoning a recent precedent,” their attorney, Cogan, told The Post. “The Oregon constitution has a very strong freedom of religion clause — much strong than the First Amendment.”

Still, prosecutor Mike Regan said in 2011 that child abuse, regardless of the reason, is child abuse.

“These generally are good, decent, law-abiding folks, except in this one narrow area of their lives,” he said, according to the Oregonian. “One [area] where they have told us stubbornly — and arrogantly, if I may — that ‘We are not going to change.

“The law of civil society demands that they change. It demands that we sent a message to all of them that whether you believe this or not in Oregon, you cannot act upon that belief.”

Dale Hickman is at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem and Shannon Hickman is at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville.

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