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Faith-healing parents guilty in teen son’s death

A jury in Oregon finds a couple guilty of criminally negligent homicide for praying over their ill son instead of seeking medical help.
/ Source: The Associated Press

An Oregon couple was found guilty Tuesday of criminally negligent homicide for praying over their ill son instead of seeking medical help.

The jury returned the verdict on the second day of deliberations in the trial of Jeff and Marci Beagley, both members of the Followers of Christ Church in Oregon City. Church members gasped as Judge Steven Maurer read the verdicts.

The couple, who remain free on bail, is scheduled for sentencing on Feb. 18. Because neither has a prior conviction, state sentencing guidelines call for 16 to 18 months in prison.

Prosecutors said the Beagleys had a duty as parents to provide medical care for their 16-year-old son, Neil, who died in 2008 of complications from a urinary tract blockage. The defense argued the teenager had symptoms more like a cold or the flu.

The couple and other church members at the hearing declined to comment Tuesday. Wayne Mackeson, Jeff Beagley's attorney, said they would consider an appeal.

"It's never been a referendum on the church. This case involves parents who didn't understand how sick their child was," he said.

Shunning conventional medicine
The Followers of Christ shuns conventional medicine in favor of faith healing. The church has been in Oregon City since early in the 20th century. Its members, by their own description and that of others, keep to themselves.

State authorities have found that an unusual number of children whose families belonged to the Followers of Christ had died at an early age, leading to a 1999 state law that eliminated faith healing as a defense in some manslaughter and criminal mistreatment cases.

The trial of the Beagleys was the second major faith healing trial in the state since the law was changed, although previous laws on criminally negligent homicide applied in their case.

Oregon is among several states that limit or do not allow faith or spiritual healing as a defense in some criminal charges for the death of a child. A Wisconsin couple accused of praying instead of seeking treatment for their diabetic 11-year-old daughter was sentenced to prison in a similar case there, and a Pennsylvania couple who prayed over their toddler was recently ordered to stand trial on manslaughter charges in his pneumonia death.

The Beagleys are the parents of Raylene Worthington, who along with her husband were acquitted of manslaughter last year in the March 2008 death of their 15-month-old daughter, Ava, from pneumonia and a blood infection. Her husband, Carl Brent Worthington, was convicted of misdemeanor criminal mistreatment.

Also were at girl's death
The Beagleys were present at the death of their granddaughter, laying on hands after anointing her with oil and praying for her to be healed instead of seeking medical care that church members avoid.

Greg Horner, the chief deputy district attorney who also prosecuted the faith healing trial, argued that the Beagleys should have been alert to the potential for relatively mild symptoms to mask serious and even fatal disease after the death of their granddaughter.

Defense lawyers argued the Beagleys were acting reasonably and did not believe Neil was in danger of dying.

Attorney Wayne Mackeson told the jury that all of Neil Beagley's symptoms were "nonspecific," meaning they could have been a sign of any number of diseases, including a common cold or the flu.

District Attorney John Foote said his office would have no comment until after sentencing.

"The jury's verdicts of guilty are extremely important for this community," he said. "However, the cases are still not complete."