OREGON CITY, Ore. (RNS) An Oregon judge on Monday (Oct. 31) sentenced two members of a faith-healing church to more than six years in prison, saying the death of their newborn son was easily avoidable.
A jury in September unanimously found Dale and Shannon Hickman guilty of second-degree manslaughter after their son, David Hickman, died after less than nine hours. The boy was born approximately two months premature and weighed less than four pounds.
Close to 100 people packed Judge Robert Herndon’s courtroom for the sentencing, nearly all of them fellow members of the Followers of Christ church, an Oregon City congregation that shuns medicine in favor of faith-healing.
Herndon gave the couple 75 months in prison, the mandatory minimum under state sentencing guidelines. The sentence also has three years of probation.
“As the evidence enfolded and the witnesses testified, it became evidence to me and certainly to the jury … that this death just simply did not need to occur,” Herndon said.
Before the sentencing, both parents tearfully asked Herndon for mercy, specifically for their 7-year-old child and new baby. Shannon Hickman mentioned she spent “24 hours a day” with her children, and Dale Hickman asked the court to specifically have mercy for his wife.
“We are willing to do anything that the court sees fit,” Dale Hickman said.
Prosecutor Mike Regan took a hard line on the couple, saying a strong message needed to be sent to the church, which has a long history of child deaths due to lack of medical treatment.
“These generally are good, decent, law-abiding folks, except in this one narrow area of their lives,” Regan said. “One (area) where they have told us stubbornly—and arrogantly, if I may—that ‘We are not going to change.”’
“The law of civil society demands that they change,” Regan continued. “It demands that we sent a message to all of them that whether you believe this or not in Oregon, you cannot act upon that belief.”
Dale Hickmans’ defense attorney, Mark Cogan, pushed for probation, saying the Hickmans would be compliant with any court orders for medical care. The couple has already taken their two children—a seven-year-old and a new baby—to see a pediatrician, Cogan noted.
“These are not criminals,” Cogan said.
The Hickmans are the fourth couple from the church to be convicted for refusing to get medicine for a sick child. Timothy and Rebecca Wyland, who were convicted of first-degree criminal mistreatment for failing to seek treatment for a growth that threatened their daughter’s eyesight, supported the Hickmans at the courthouse on Monday.
Carl Brent Worthington, who was convicted of criminal mistreatment in the death of his 15-month-old daughter, also sat in the courtroom.
Shannon Hickman’s attorney, John Neidig, asked the judge for special consideration for his client, noting that she did not have as many chances to call for help because in their church, all decisions are made by the husband.
“That is a function of their religion, a religious practice,” Neidig insisted. “The husband is the head of the household, like Christ is the head of the church.”
(Nicole Dungca writes for The Oregonian in Portland, Ore.)