THE mistrial last week in the negligent-homicide trial of a mother in Louisiana who relied on prayer instead of medicine to treat her five-year-old son illustrates the difficulties courts are having in dealing with laws concerning spiritual healing. A six-person jury in Amite, La., failed on Nov. 30 to reach a verdict in the case of Anneta Williamson. Her son, Don Loren, died in 1989 of what was diagnosed as leukemia. The jury apparently deadlocked at 5 to 1 for conviction.
Mrs. Williamson is a member of the Oak Grove Church of God, in Loranger, La., which is affiliated with one of a number of fundamentalist denominations sharing the same name. Church members treat illnesses with ``praying, fasting, and annointment.'' Most other Church of God denominations do not practice healing solely through prayer.
Defense lawyer Michael Thiel argued that a 1985 Louisiana child-neglect law precluded prosecution. That law, which was enacted at the request of the Christian Science Church, provides that reliance on spiritual healing instead of medicine ``shall not, for that reason alone, be considered to be criminally negligent treatment or neglect of a child.''
But Assistant Attorney General Ken DeJean argued the law did not apply to negligent-homicide cases, which are covered by a different law.
The same debate has arisen in several similar trials involving Christian Science parents whose children died while under spiritual treatment. Trial and appellate courts in several states have split on whether the spiritual-healing provisions protected the parents from prosecution. Some courts have dismissed charges against parents; in other cases, parents have been convicted. All the convictions are currently under appeal.
While the Church of God and the Church of Christ, Scientist both espouse spiritual healing, their approaches differ.
Defense lawyer Thiel says the decision ``sends a message to the state that the status of law in this area is extremely confusing.'' He said the mistrial was ``a victory, but I would have been more pleased if it had been totally resolved'' with a verdict of innocent.
Williamson had turned down a plea-bargain arrangement under which she would plead no contest and consent to medical treatment for her other children if they became ill.