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OREGON CITY, Ore. (RNS) Jurors sent a clear signal Tuesday (Feb. 2) that parents who rely solely on faith healing to treat their children face prison if a child dies.
Jeffrey and Marci Beagley were found guilty of criminally negligent homicide in the death of their 16-year-old son, Neil, who died in June
2008 of complications from an undiagnosed congenital urinary blockage.
His parents attempted to heal him with prayer, anointing with oil and laying on of hands.
They are the first members of Oregon City’s Followers of Christ church to be convicted of homicide in the congregation’s long history of children dying from treatable medical conditions.
“This is a signal to the religious community that they should be on notice that their activities will be scrutinized,” said Steven K. Green, director of Willamette University’s Center for Religion and Democracy.
Prosecutor Greg Horner asked that the Beagleys immediately be taken in to custody. Clackamas County Presiding Judge Steven L. Maurer denied the request, saying the Beagleys were not a flight risk or threat to the community.
Friends and family reacted to the 10-2 verdicts with stunned silence. Marci Beagley hugged her mother in the courthouse lobby as both women wept. Other family members quietly stood by.
The Beagleys will be sentenced Feb. 18. The maximum penalty for criminally negligent homicide is 10 years, but the Beagleys likely will receive no more than 18 months in prison and could be sentenced to probation.
Steve Lindsey, who represented Marci Beagley, said he would recommend a “non-jail sentence” that would include probation and possibly other conditions, such as counseling, supervised medical care for the Beagleys’ 16-year-old daughter, Kathryn, and cooperating with state child-welfare investigators. Lindsey said such a sentence could educate the Followers about their legal responsibilities as parents.
This is the second faith-healing death that has landed the Beagleys’ extended family in court. Last summer, a jury found the couple’s daughter, Raylene Worthington, not guilty of manslaughter in the faith-healing death of her 15-month-old daughter, Ava. Her husband, Carl Worthington, was convicted on a lesser charge.
As the verdict was read and the jury was polled on Tuesday, Marci Beagley and a few of the jurors cried. The strain of the nine-day trial was apparent. All but one of the jurors declined to speak with reporters.
“None of us thought they were evil,” said juror Robert Zegar. “They just made a wrong decision.”
Rita Swan, president of Children’s Healthcare is a Legal Duty, an Iowa-based advocacy group, hailed the conviction as a victory for Oregon children.
“I know the parents are broken-hearted,” said Swan, who previously lobbied Oregon legislators to limit legal protection for parents involved in faith-healing deaths. “But love and good intentions are not all it takes to be a good parent.”
Jurors were asked to consider whether the Beagleys’ actions were “a gross deviation” from what a reasonable person would have done in a similar situation.
Defense attorneys downplayed the religious aspects of the case while prosecutors said the law, faith and parental duties were inseparably bound.
Neil Beagley “grew up in a world where medicine is weakness, faith is strength,” prosecutor Steven Mygrant told jurors.
Neil embraced the church’s belief that seeking medical care shows a lack of faith. None of his relatives used doctors. And Neil was unable to make an informed health-care decision because he didn’t know he was on the verge of death, prosecutors said.
“For me, this case was not about faith healing and it was not a referendum on the church,” said Jeffrey Beagley’s lawyer, Wayne Mackeson. “It was about two parents who loved their son and did not know how sick he was.”
(Steven Mayes writes for The Oregonian in Portland, Ore. Rick Bella, Nicole Dungca, Dana Tims and Yuxing Zheng contributed to this report.)
Copyright 2010 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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