Boston — What could be a long-drawn-out legal process has begun in the case of a Massachusetts couple who are under indictment for relying on prayer - rather than medicine - for healing their infant son, who died. But if the court honors an early motion for dismissal - based on the premise that David and Ginger Twitchell believed that their actions were in compliance with the law - this prosecution could be ended, perhaps by the end of the year.
Defense lawyer Rikki Klieman is filing such a motion today.
Also in the works is the probable filing of a friend-of-the-court brief by the Christian Science Church, based on First Amendment constitutional reasons why this prosecution should not be continued.
The Twitchells were indicted on manslaughter charges by a Boston grand jury in late April. Their 2-year-old son Robyn died in 1986 of what was later diagnosed as a bowel obstruction. Robyn was receiving Christian Science care.
The core of the Twitchell's legal defense is likely to be contained in the motion to dismiss. It is based on a 1971 amendment to a Massachusetts child abuse and neglect law that recognizes spiritual means of healing as an alternative to medical treatment. Over 40 states offer similar accommodations for religious care.
Although neither prosecution nor defense has revealed specific plans for proceeding on the motion, it is known that the defendants will argue for dismissal on grounds that no crime has been committed since the state statute allows an exemption from medical care for those who rely on prayer for healing.
They will also argue that prosecution for acting in accordance with their religious convictions is a violation of their due-process rights and an underlying concept of fairness.
The district attorney, on the other hand, will almost certainly oppose the motion to dismiss charges, claiming that the law in question was not written to allow parents to avoid prosecution in situations where a child's life is at stake. The prosecution will also likely claim that the manslaughter charge is based on broader issues than the validity of the exemption statute.
District Attorney Newman Flanagan has denied that he brought this prosecution to punish the defendants. He has sidestepped the question of whether he would seek imprisonment or a fine if he wins the case. The prosecutor says he believes, however, that such legal action serves as an admonition to those who would deny medical care for their children.
The defendants stress, on the other hand, that Christian Science is a proved method of healing. Further, they say their actions were in accordance with state law and the United States Constitution, which guarantees free exercise of religion.
Earlier, the court rejected a gag-order motion by the district attorney to probihit the Twitchells, their lawyer, and a spokesman for the Christian Science Church from discussing this case with the news media.
Court hearings on the motion to dismiss and other pretrial moves by both sides will not likely occur until late fall.