Twitchells to Appeal Conviction
Defense lawyers are very confident that verdict can be overturned
A suffolk County jury has found David and Ginger Twitchell guilty of involuntary manslaughter for relying on Christian Science prayer rather than medicine to heal their child. A sentencing date is to be set today. The defense plans to appeal. The jury of eight women and four men began deliberations Monday afternoon and delivered the verdict in an emotional session around 5:00 p.m. Wednesday. Several jurors began weeping as the verdicts were announced; many openly sobbed as they left the courtroom.
The Twitchells were charged in the death of their 2-1/2-year-old son, Robyn, in 1986 after a five-day illness. The death was later attributed to complications from a bowel obstruction caused by a birth defect.
The defense maintained throughout the nine-week trial that the child never appeared seriously ill until shortly before he died.
Noting that several of the jurors were distraught, defense co-counsel Rikki Klieman asked that the jury be asked to vote aloud in the courtroom.
Suffolk County Superior Court Judge Sandra Hamlin denied the motion. Ms. Klieman later called the ruling ``appalling.''
``This verdict will send out a message: When a child is in need of medical care, it is the duty of parents to provide it,'' said special prosecutor John Kiernan after the verdict was announced.
``I cannot thank the jury enough for their efforts to be fair ...,'' Mr. Twitchell said. ``As you heard, it was hard for some of them. Given the instructions and the way the prosecution case was handled, they did not have much choice. There is no admission of guilt on our part.''
The conviction heightens the controversy over a 1971 Massachusetts child-abuse and endangerment act. The law states that ``a child shall not be deemed to be neglected or to lack proper physical care for the sole reason that it is being provided remedial treatment by spiritual means alone in accordance with the tenets and practices of a recognized church.''
A 1974 state attorney general's opinion held that the law precluded ``imposition of criminal liability as a negligent parent'' for relying on spiritual healing.
In her instructions to the jury, Judge Hamlin stated that state law does not allow reliance on spiritual healing alone if a child is in danger of serious bodily harm or death. She gave no citation for this interpretation, nor did she read the full child-endangerment law to the jury.
``The judge stated clearly what the law of the land is,'' asserted Mr. Kiernan.
Klieman sharply disagreed: ``The law does not say medical care is mandated, as the judge said it was.''
Hamlin told the jurors they needed to consider four elements to convict: First, was the child's condition such that the parents had a duty to provide medical care? Second, was that duty breached? Third, was the Twitchells' conduct ``wanton and reckless''? Fourth, did the failure to provide medical care cause Robyn's death?
The four elements caused the jurors difficulty. Twice they asked Hamlin to reread her instructions and finally asked her to specifically redefine the term ``wanton and reckless,'' a key element.
Hamlin told the jurors that ``a subjective belief in healing by prayer, or any other religious belief, does not excuse the parents from the duty to provide medical care.''
Given the judge's instructions, ``if the Twitchells were jurors, they would have had to return a judgment against themselves,'' Klieman said. ``That some held out shows their courage.''
Hamlin's instruction to the jury that medical care must be provided narrowed the jury's options.
The prosecution had asserted that the child was gravely ill during the five days he was sick, and this would have been obvious to ``anyone.'' The defense insisted this was not the case.
According to defense testimony, however, the child manifested alarming symptoms during the last two hours before he died. Hamlin told the jury that if they determined the child's condition required the parents to provide medical care, they must then determine whether the parents' conduct was wanton and reckless under the law.
In her closing arguments, Klieman told the jury the prosecution case was based on ``speculation, distortion, and exaggeration.'' None of the prosecution medical witnesses had seen the child while he was ill, and none had taken a detailed medical history of the illness from the parents.
``Maybe you think they made a mistake,'' Klieman said. ``You can't convict them for that.''
But Kiernan told the jury a guilty verdict would ``set a standard. It will tell the world when a child is sick you must get medical care.'' In his closing, Kiernan called the Twitchells extremists who were more interested in their ``intellectual purity'' than in their son's health.
Klieman accused Kiernan of quoting out of context from Mary Baker Eddy's writings and of distorting Christian Science. ``The basic foundation of Christian Science is spritual healing,'' she said. ``Without it there is no Christian Science.''
Klieman and church officials have argued that the church was the actual target of the prosecution. Kiernan denied this. ``The government has reached out and embraced spiritual healing,'' he said. ``The issue is whether parents can exclude medical science when a child is in need.''
Asked how, if Christian Science maintains that medicine and Christian Science prayer cannot be mixed, he could maintain the religion was not on trial, Kiernan said, ``I don't put myself forward as an expert ... but as I read Mary Baker Eddy, it's quite clear than she makes a number of provisions for the use of medical science.''
The verdict ``does not change my belief in God,'' Mr. Twitchell said. ``This was a prosecution against our faith. My faith was challenged when my child died. This is a challenge to my faith in the judicial system and government, perhaps.''
Church spokesman Nathan Talbot denied that the church was ``in trouble'' because of the verdict or other recent convictions of Christian Scientists in Florida and California under similar circumstances. Noting that the four convictions were all under appeal, he said, ``The bright side is the rediscovery of spiritual healing by the community,'' he said, adding that it is unfortunate it had to happen in this way.
``Early Christianity lost some battles, too,'' he said, adding that state laws protecting the practice of spiritual healing remain on the books.
Talbot said the trials have ``unified Christian Scientists'' and ``awakened them to the need to help the community awaken to spiritual healing.''
Klieman said she will immediately file an appeal in the case and was ``100 percent confident'' of winning. Several trial lawyers who have witnessed the trial say reversal of the verdict is likely.