Seven sets of Oregon parents who believe in faith-healing have faced criminal charges in the death or illness of their children in the last decade, but the most recent case carries the harshest accusation yet: murder.
Sarah, 24, and Travis Mitchell, 21, have been held in jail without bail since June 5 pending trial on charges of murder and first-degree criminal mistreatment. Their twin daughter, Ginnifer, died in March. The other twin girl survived after a medical examiner and Oregon City police officers urged family members to take her to the hospital.
The couple could face life in prison if convicted. They have pleaded not guilty to their charges.
The circumstances of their daughter’s death parallel what happened eight years earlier when Sarah Mitchell’s sister also gave birth and her son died.
Sarah Mitchell attended that birth and testified at her sister’s trial. Mitchell and sister Shannon Hickman are both members of the Followers of Christ and granddaughters of the Oregon City church’s founder. Members believe faith will heal all ailments and death is God’s will.
Sarah Mitchell’s presence and her description of what she saw then could prove crucial in the current case against her and her husband.
Prosecutors appear to be drawing a distinction in the new case to justify a murder charge. It comes down to allegations of recklessness.
Clackamas County prosecutors allege that Sarah and Travis Mitchell “unlawfully and recklessly” caused the death of their daughter “under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life,” according to the indictment.
Shannon Hickman and her husband, Dale Hickman, were accused of causing the death of their son by criminal negligence, neglect and maltreatment.
The Hickmans were convicted of second-degree manslaughter and received the mandatory minimum penalty of six years and three months in prison in the 2009 death of their son, David.
“Generally speaking, negligence means a person should have been aware of the risk in causing a person’s death and reckless means a person is aware of the risk and disregards it,” said Greg Horner, who retired in March as Clackamas County chief deputy district attorney and prosecuted several cases involving Followers of Christ parents.
Faith-healing criminal cases
Sarah Mitchell, 24, and her husband Travis Mitchell, 21, are at least the seventh set of faith-healing parents since 2008 to face criminal charges in Oregon for not seeking medical care for their children. All but one child died.
Five of the cases, including the Mitchells’, have involved Followers of Christ members in Clackamas County. The other two occurred in Lane and Linn counties.
In Oregon, faith-healing parents have been convicted of crimes ranging from criminal mistreatment to manslaughter. One of the parents was acquitted among the seven cases. Two other parents received probation for their convictions and the rest all were sentenced to jail or prison time.
The most serious penalty was 10 years in prison for first-degree manslaughter in Linn County in 2014.
— In 2009, Carl Worthington was convicted in Clackamas County of criminal mistreatment and sentenced to two months in jail. He and his wife, Raylene Worthington, were accused of not seeking medical care for their 15-month-old daughter, who died of bronchial pneumonia and blood infection as Followers of Christ Church members gathered around her for prayer. A jury acquitted Raylene Worthington of all charges.
— In 2010, Jeffrey and Marci Beagley were convicted in Clackamas County of criminally negligent homicide and sentenced to one year and four months in prison. A jury found them guilty of not seeking medical aid for their 16-year-old son, who died from complications of urinary bladder obstruction. The Beagleys, members of the Followers of Christ Church, said they followed their son’s wishes in treating him with only prayer and faith healing. Raylene Worthington is the Beagleys’ daughter.
— In 2011, Timothy and Rebecca Wyland were convicted in Clackamas County of criminal mistreatment and were sentenced to 90 days in jail. A jury found them guilty for not seeking medical treatment for their infant daughter who developed a growth called a hemangioma that eventually covered and engulfed her left eye. The couple, members of the Followers of Christ Church, said they thought the growth was a birthmark that would eventually go away and tried to treat it with prayer, anointing with oil and laying their hands on it.
— In 2011, Dale and Shannon Hickman were convicted in Clackamas County of second-degree manslaughter and sentenced to six years and three months in prison. A jury found them guilty of not seeking medical care for their premature son who died nine hours after birth of staph pneumonia and underdeveloped lungs. The parents, members of the Followers of Christ Church, testified that other than their son’s size, they believed he was healthy and saw no signs of distress until moments before he died. They said they prayed and their baby’s head was anointed with oil before he died.
— In 2012, Brandi and Russel Bellew were convicted in Lane County of criminally negligent homicide and sentenced to five years of probation. The parents pleaded guilty to not seeking medical care for their 16-year-old son, who died of an infection caused by a burst appendix. The Bellews are part of the General Assembly and Church of the First Born, whose members believe in faith healing over conventional medicine. According to the terms of their probation, they were required to contact a doctor if any of their other six children became sick for more than a day.
— In 2014, Travis and Wenona Rossiter were convicted in Linn County of first-degree manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years in prison. A jury found them guilty of not seeking medical care for their 12-year-old daughter, who died a year earlier from complications of untreated diabetes. The Rossiters are members of the Church of the First Born. The couple believed their daughter had the flu.
The Hickmans’ son died nine hours after birth and the Mitchells’ daughter after about four hours, both of complications of prematurity, medical examiners found. Both babies weighed about 3 pounds and 6 ounces at death.
Both Shannon Hickman and Sarah Mitchell gave birth at their parents’ home. They received help from other women in the church.
Church members in both cases contacted the medical examiner’s office after the babies died and didn’t call 911, authorities said. Witnesses said the babies appeared healthy and strong and didn’t show signs of distress until just before they died.
During her sister’s trial in 2011, Sarah Mitchell testified that she saw her mother trying unsuccessfully to wake the newborn boy and heard her father say the baby appeared dead. No one suggested taking the baby to a doctor, Mitchell testified.
Prosecutors in the office of District Attorney John Foote filed the cases against both sisters and their husbands.
Foote and Horner were among officials who testified at the state Capitol in 2011 in favor of removing Oregon’s legal protections from all homicide charges for parents who engage in only spiritual treatment for their ailing child.
Foote told the House Judiciary Committee at the time that the Oregon State Medical Examiner’s Office estimated 20 children had died within Oregon City’s Followers of Christ Church over the previous 25 years and their deaths were preventable.
Horner had met with church leaders to tell them that parents whose children died with no medical treatment sought would result in criminal charges.
“We didn’t want to catch them by surprise,” Foote told lawmakers. “Our preference was that they would take that we meant it and protect their children.”
Foote said he later wrote individually addressed letters to over 400 church members asking to talk about ways to reach some common ground.
He said the point was again to let parents know he wanted them to protect their kids. He said he received “spattering responses.”
He learned that the attitudes among some church members had changed, he said at the legislative hearing, but “we do believe there is a core in the church that simply is not going to change. And what they need to feel from us is our resolve that we will hold them accountable.”
He said removing the legal protections would be an important part of that message, especially for parents who want things to change within the church.
“And without pressure from the outside, things are not going to change,” Foote said then.
Horner, who at the time had prosecuted cases against two sets of Followers parents, said he was confident those prosecutions were within the scope of the U.S. and Oregon Constitutions based on the protection of children.
“We made it very clear that our prosecution was not about prayer and we said that repeatedly,” Horner said.
“There is nothing about prayer that is in violation of the law. What these cases were about was the failure to provide adequate medical care.”
Foote told The Oregonian/OregonLive that he couldn’t talk about the Mitchells’ case. The Mitchells’ attorneys and prosecutors also have declined comment.
But defense attorney Mark Cogan, who represented Dale Hickman and two other Followers of Christ parents in separate cases, said Foote has made no secret of plans to scrutinize church members more than his predecessors.
Cogan said his clients didn’t cause the death of their children and he didn’t know what led to prosecutors to charge the Mitchells with murder.
“But the government has made closing arguments in the past,” he said, “that members of the church should have known their actions would have caused the death of their children and let them die anyway.”
Some families within the church do seek medical care, Cogan said. They don’t deserve the effort by several groups that have “tried for years to villainize and demonize” church members, he said.
“At the end of the day, these are good people who care about their families,” Cogan said. “To paint them all as people who refuse to seek medical care for their children is just false.”
Court documents show defense attorneys for the Mitchells have requested a delay in the proceedings to review evidence provided by prosecutors. Jason Thompson, Travis Mitchell’s attorney, in court documents described the amount of evidence as “voluminous.”
The question of knowing the consequences of actions tied to religious beliefs was a crucial argument in the death of the Hickmans’ baby.
The couple appealed their conviction, arguing that the Oregon Constitution required the state to prove that they knew their son was going to die if they relied on prayer. Their attorneys made the argument during their trial, but the judge disagreed. So did the Oregon Court of Appeals and later the Oregon Supreme Court.
Oregon once had broad faith-healing exemptions, said James Oleske, an associate law professor at Lewis & Clark Law School and an expert on religion and law. But lawmakers have since cracked down, including removing spiritual treatment as a defense for all homicide charges in 2011. Oleske said it’s now unlikely defendants in similar cases would be able to make a successful religious liberty defense.
“Even at times when courts have interpreted constitutions to give the broadest exemption rights, they’ve always said the state, if it has a compelling reason for denying the exemption, could deny the exemption,” Oleske said.
“And it’s hard to think of a more compelling reason to deny an exemption than to save a human life.”
— Everton Bailey Jr.
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