Parents who withheld care are guilty of homicide, Wisconsin justices say

The Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld by 6 to 1 the second-degree reckless homicide conviction of two parents whose daughter died, citing a  'legal duty to provide medical care for a child if necessary.' 

Rob Orcutt/Wausau Daily Herald/AP
Leilani and Dale Neumann leave a Marathon County Circuit Courtroom in Wausau, Wis., in 2008. On Wednesday the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that the mother and father who prayed instead of seeking medical help as their 11-year-old daughter Madeline Kara Neumann died in front of them were properly convicted of homicide.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld the homicide conviction of two parents whose 11-year-old daughter died while they relied on prayer and faith in God to treat her illness rather than conventional medicine.

The state high court ruled 6 to 1 that the parents, Dale and Leilani Neumann, were properly tried and convicted of second-degree reckless homicide for failing to provide emergency medical treatment to their daughter, Kara.

“A parent has a legal duty to provide medical care for a child if necessary,” the Wisconsin high court declared.

Wisconsin law provides an exemption for those who rely on spiritual means through prayer to treat a child’s illness. But the provision applies only to cases of alleged child abuse, not homicide, the majority justices said.

“No one reading the treatment-through-prayer provision should expect protection from criminal liability under any other statute,” Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson wrote for the court.

“When a parent fails to provide medical care to his or her child, creates an unreasonable and substantial risk of death or great bodily harm, is aware of that risk, and causes the death of the child, the parent is guilty of second-degree reckless homicide,” Chief Justice Abrahamson said.

According to the court record, Kara, the youngest of the Neumanns’ four children, would have appeared healthy to a casual observer until roughly four days before her death. Her parents thought she might have the flu.

In response to her worsening condition, they prayed and enlisted the prayers of others. The Neumanns, residents of Weston, Wis., are not members of a formal religious sect, but identify themselves as Pentecostals.

“They believe that there are spiritual root causes to sickness and that their prayer and strong religious beliefs will cure any health problems they encounter,” the court decision said.

At one point, Kara’s maternal grandmother advised taking the girl to a doctor. According to the court’s opinion, Kara’s mother replied, “No, she’ll be fine, God will heal her.”

Eventually, two calls were placed to 911, but not by the parents. The responding paramedics were unable to revive Kara and she was pronounced dead at the hospital. It was Easter Sunday 2008.

Mr. Neumann testified at his trial that throughout the ordeal death was not a concern. He told the jury that even after his daughter was pronounced dead, he believed Jesus would raise her from the dead, as he had done with Lazarus.

Doctors at the hospital said Kara died of diabetes. Another doctor testified that, if treated, Kara’s condition had a 99.8 percent survival rate.

At trial, the parents were accused of violating what the state said is a legal duty of every parent to provide medical care for his or her child when necessary.

Such a requirement does not violate a parent’s fundamental right to direct the care of his or her children, and it does not infringe First Amendment protections of the free exercise of religious faith, the Wisconsin high court said.

The majority justices cited the US Supreme Court’s 1990 precedent in a case called Employment Division v. Smith. Protections of religious freedom are absolute as to beliefs, but do not cover conduct, which can be regulated for the protection of society, the Wisconsin high court said.

Both juries presiding over the trial of the mother and a separate trial of the father were given similar instructions on the inapplicability of religious protections to the cases.

As a result, the court said, there was no need for jurors to consider that the parents’ reliance on prayer to heal their daughter stemmed from their sincerely held religious beliefs.

In their appeal, the parents argued that their homicide convictions violated their right to receive clear and fair notice that their use on prayer for healing would subject them to prosecution for homicide. The court rejected that argument as well.

In a lone dissent, Justice David Prosser encouraged judges, lawyers, and the Wisconsin legislature to examine what he called “troublesome questions” raised in the Neumann cases.

“Dale and Leilani Neumann are not likely to be viewed sympathetically by people who read the statement of facts in the majority opinion,” he wrote. “The Neumann’s reaction to their daughter’s illness was so inconsistent with the normative behavior of most contemporary parents that it is hard for people to identify with them or to understand their thinking and values.”

Justice Prosser said the issues are not black and white, and that the underlying state laws are imprecise and confusing.

“The Neumanns claim that the reckless homicide statute is too murky to give sufficient notice as to when parental choice of treatment through prayer becomes illegal,” he said. “Given the nature of Kara’s illness, as well as the imprecision in the statutory language, I agree. There is a due process problem here,” Justice Prosser said.

“The statutory scheme is so difficult to explain that if a prayer-treating parent were to consult an attorney on how he or she could prayer-treat and stay within the bounds of the law, virtually any attorney would be at a loss to reasonably advise the client,” he said.

After their convictions, Mr. and Mrs. Neumann were both sentenced to 180 days in jail and 10 years' probation. Their jail terms are to be served 30 days each year for six years, with the parents alternating the months of March and September with each other.

The cases are Wisconsin v. Dale Neumann and Wisconsin V. Leilani Neumann.

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