(RNS) A judge sentenced two Oregon parents to 16 months in prison on Monday (March 8), calling their decision to not seek medical care for their 16-year-old son a “crime that was a product of an unwillingness to respect the boundaries of freedom of expression.”
Marci Beagley sobbed as the sentencing was read, and shortly after, defense attorney Wayne Mackeson objected to the sentence.
The parents, Jeffrey and Marci Beagley, had been found guilty of criminally negligent homicide on Feb. 2 in the death of 16-year-old Neil Beagley, who died in June 2008 of complications involved with a urinary tract obstruction.
“The idea of sending Jeffrey and Marci Beagley to prison is heart-wrenching,” Clackamas County Circuit Court Judge Steven Maurer said in a lengthy explanation of his sentence. `
“I think, certainly, that I’m in complete agreement with the jurors who observed that the Beagleys are good people.”
But the decision was necessary, Maurer said, because “the magnitude of their crimes simply warrants it.”
Maurer touched upon religious freedoms, saying he thought the local community was very respectful to beliefs from congregations like the Followers of Christ Church, which believes in faith-healing at the exclusion of most medical care.
But there are boundaries for religious freedom, he said.
“It is up to us as a community and a criminal justice system, and government, to take very seriously that societal obligation … and recognize that investment and interest we have in each and every child,” he said.
The sentence could be a “pause for reflection” or re-examination for the Followers of Christ church, said Maurer, who added that he believed the church was capable of “softening the rigidity” of their beliefs on excluding medical care.
The courtroom was packed with Beagley supporters, including their daughter Raylene Worthington and her husband Carl Worthington. Both were tried last July for second-degree manslaughter and criminal mistreatment in the death of their infant daughter, Ava Worthington. Carl Worthington was found guilty of criminal mistreatment, while the two were acquitted of all other charges.
The two families are members of the Followers of Christ Church. The church’s lengthy history of child deaths stemming from lack of medical care led to a 1999 law that eliminated the religious freedom defense in cases involving the welfare of a child.
Maurer repeated something he stated during the Worthington
sentencing: the case was not a referendum on the church, yet ignoring the church’s impact on the couple would be self-deluding. “The church is imprinted upon them,” he said.
Before the sentencing, prosecutor Greg Horner urged the court to impose the presumptive sentence of 16 to 18 months for the case. “Only a penitentiary sentence reflects the seriousness of this crime,” Horner argued.
A strong sentence could send a deterrence message to the close-knit church community that had been closely watching the twin trials, he said.
“The court has the opportunity to deliver a clear message that this idea that one can let a child die while they’re praying without medical attention is not supportable,” Horner said. “It must be addressed.”
Defense attorneys, meanwhile, were adamant in recommending probationary sentences without prison time, noting that both defendants had no criminal record.
“Prison would be more destructive than productive,” said defense attorney Steve Lindsey, who represents Marci Beagley.
Mackeson, arguing on behalf of the father, spoke to the closeness of the Beagley family and asked the judge to note that the boy’s death came just months after the couple’s granddaughter, Ava, died under similar circumstances.
He also stressed the personal faith of Jeffrey Beagley, saying his father’s faith was an integral part of the teenager’s life. The teen’s level of maturity, age, and his religious beliefs should be considered by the court, Mackeson said.
The Beagley’s situation was a “unique case,” Mackeson said, with “unique defendants.”
By NICOLE DUNGCA (Nicole Dungca writes for The Oregonian in Portland.)
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