A federal judge overturned the 1990 involuntary manslaughter conviction of a Christian Scientist in Sacramento, Calif., who was prosecuted for relying on spiritual healing when her preschool daughter became seriously ill. The girl passed away while under the care of a Christian Science practitioner and nurse.
Chief US District Judge Emeritus Lawrence Karlton threw out the conviction of Laurie Walker because he said prosecutors had violated her constitutional right to receive fair notice that a parent's reliance on spiritual healing might constitute a crime in California.
The principle of fair notice is inherent in the 14th Amendment's guarantee of due process of law.
At the time of the child's illness in February 1984, a provision of California law recognized spiritual healing as an accepted alternative to medical treatment.
Prosecutors in the Walker case argued that spiritual healing was only sanctioned when children were suffering from nonserious illnesses. In cases involving life-threatening illness, parents must seek medical treatment for a dependent child, they said. The California Supreme Court agreed.
Walker was found guilty in a nonjury trial. She received a suspended five-year prison sentence and was ordered to serve four years and four months of probation.
Judge Karlton's order, dated Oct. 4, came in response to a petition for a writ of habeas corpus - a kind of last-ditch legal appeal - filed in 1993 by Walker's attorney, Thomas Volk of Sacramento.
"How can you prosecute someone for doing exactly what the law says you can do? That is the fundamental fairness argument we took to the federal court," he says.
A federal magistrate judge who issued findings to Karlton wrote: "There was nothing in the statutory scheme that existed at the time the tragic events at bar took place which gave [Walker] fair notice that her choice to seek spiritual healing for her daughter would expose her to criminal liability...."
Janet Gaard, the assistant attorney general who prosecuted Walker, said her office had not decided whether it would file an appeal with the Ninth US Court of Appeals in San Francisco. She said she had no further comment.