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OREGON CITY, Ore. — Jurors on Thursday (July 23) acquitted two parents
accused in the faith-healing death of their infant daughter on all but
one count, a stunning legal victory in a case that pitted religious
freedom against parental responsibility.
Carl and Raylene Worthington were charged with second-degree
manslaughter and criminal mistreatment after their 15-month-old
daughter, Ava, died on March 2, 2008 when the couple chose faith-healing
over conventional medicine.
Prosecutors claimed the girl died a “needless death” caused by
pneumonia and a blood infection that could have been easily treated with
routine antibiotics. Defense lawyers said the parents genuinely believed
their daughter was on her way to recovery.
Raylene Worthington was acquitted of both charges, while her husband
was convicted on the lesser charge of criminal mistreatment, a
misdemeanor. He will be sentenced July 31.
Jurors broke a three-day stalemate after Clackamas County Circuit
Judge Steven Maurer sent them home to get away from the process for a
while. When they returned, jurors started discussing the case in more
personal terms and found common ground, jury foreman Ashlee Santos
explained.
“Granted, they didn’t take her (Ava) to the hospital, but it was
truly because they thought she was getting better,” Santos said. “That
was the best epiphany moment.”
Such thoughtful deliberation, and consideration of the Worthingtons’
point of view, was exactly what defense attorneys sought. Lawyers
complained of a rapid public rush to judgment by those suspicious of the
Worthingtons’ small, isolated church and its beliefs.
“There was a lot of misunderstanding about the church,” said John
Neidig, Raylene Worthington’s attorney. The public seems “to have gotten
the wrong impression. I hope the community learned something.”
Some jurors may have been confused by Oregon’s manslaughter law or
found it inappropriate to the circumstances. “The word itself is not
pretty,” Santos said of the charge.
“We all know they (the Worthingtons) didn’t do it on purpose, that
they had no intention of harming their child,” Santos said.
Under Oregon law, manslaughter is defined as an accidental death
that the defendant has a legal responsibility to prevent. The criminal
mistreatment charge is clearer, requiring parents to provide adequate
medical care.
That failure to act was the basis for the Carl Worthington’s
criminal mistreatment conviction.
Although Oregon law prohibited the Worthingtons from offering a
religious defense, talk of faith and spiritual belief wove through their
trial.
Several church members testified that in a Followers of Christ
household, the husband is the leader, which the jury seemed to consider,
although state laws clearly state that both parents have a legal duty to
provide adequate medical care.
“In a marriage, most people are partners,” Santos said. “But a lot
of times, it comes down to a deciding person in the house.”
During the trial, Raylene Worthington testified that “when it comes
down to it for major decisions, they are his to make.” She said she did
not dispute him.
After the verdict was announced, the Followers of Christ church
issued a short statement through their attorney:
“The Board of Directors of the Followers of Christ Church accepts
the jury’s verdict and expresses its appreciation to the members of the
jury for doing their duty as citizens of this State. The Board is
relieved and grateful that the Worthingtons were acquitted of
manslaughter and that Raylene was acquitted of both charges filed
against her.”
Clackamas County District Attorney John Foote also released a short
statement:
“We accept the verdict in this case. The jury’s decision is final.
However, we are saddened and disappointed by this result. We continue to
believe that the facts are clear in this case and that it is our duty as
an office to enforce the law firmly and consistently, particularly when
it comes to protecting our children.”
The church and prosecutors will meet again in court early next year.
Raylene Worthington’s parents, Jeff and Marci Beagley, go on trial
in January. They are charged with criminally negligent homicide in the
death of their 16-year-old son, Neil Beagley, who died last June of an
untreated urinary tract blockage.
“In light of our responsibilities to protect everyone’s right to a
fair trial, we will not make any further comments,” Foote said without
naming the Beagleys.
By STEVE MAYES
c. 2009 Religion News Service
(Steve Mayes writes for The Oregonian in Portland, Ore. Rick Bella,
Nicole Dungca, Su Yim, Dana Tims and Yuxing Zheng contributed to this
story.)
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of
this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written
permission.

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