updated 5/18/2009 4:07:24 PM ET 2009-05-18T20:07:24

A mother accused of homicide for only praying while her 11-year-old daughter died of untreated diabetes knew the girl was gravely ill at least a day before, a sister-in-law testified Monday.

Susan Neumann of rural Merrill was the first witness to testify in the trial of Leilani Neumann, 41, who is charged with second-degree reckless homicide in her daughter Madeline's March 23, 2008, death.

Susan Neumann said Leilani Neumann told her that she came home from work at the family's coffee shop March 22 and "felt the spirit of death" when she reached for the knob to open the door to the house.

"She was afraid," the sister-in-law said. "She ran upstairs to Kara (Madeline's nickname) and felt her and was relieved to feel warmth in her arm. Then she said they started praying and praying and praying and didn't stop praying until supper time."

Defense says family didn't know
Prosecutors contend any reasonable parent would have known something was wrong and Leilani Neumann, who believes healing comes from God, recklessly killed her daughter by praying instead of rushing her to a doctor as the girl became so weak she couldn't walk or talk. The defense says the family hadn't known the girl was dying.

The maximum punishment for second-degree reckless homicide is 25 years in prison.

Before testimony began Monday, Leilani Neumann read from her Bible and circled the defense and prosecution tables several times in prayer.

Susan Neumann testified that she no longer had a relationship with her brother, Dale Neumann, who is Madeline's father. She said she contacted police about two weeks after the girl's death fearful for her brother's other three children and worried that there could be "mass suicide" in the family.

Under cross-examination, the witness was asked whether God told her to go to the police.

She said she prayed about it but "felt in my heart" it was the right thing to do and maybe God answered her prayers.

Faith vs. medicine
Ariel Neff, 18, of Ripon, Calif., testified that she made three calls from California to police in Marathon County trying to get someone to check on Madeline the day she died. Neff had married Leilani Neumann's brother two days earlier and knew the mother believed in "faith and not in doctors."

Neff, who is separated from her husband, said she had learned from her new family that Madeline was likely in a coma and that someone was trying to give the girl fluids with a syringe, which she believed could drown the girl.

Neff's three calls to police came roughly 40 minutes before someone in the Neumann home called 911 to report that Madeline was no longer breathing.

Neff cried when asked why she didn't give up trying to get the girl help.

"I knew that if nothing was done, that little girl was going to die," Neff said. "I knew that she hadn't gotten food for a couple of days. I could not let the little girl just sit there and die."

'Walking in circles'
Everest Metro Policeman Scott Marten was the first officer at the Neumann home March 23. He found the girl on a mattress and chaos throughout the household as the father pushed on her chest trying to get her to breathe.

Madeline looked malnourished, the officer told the jury. "She was skinny and just appeared to be frail."

The Neumann family followed the ambulance to the hospital and at one point went into a trauma room where the girl was taken, Marten testified.

"They were walking in circles around her bed and they seemed to be praying for quite some time," he said.

Dale Neumann, 47, is scheduled to face trial starting July 23.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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