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Faith healers return to court

Manslaughter charge hinges on whether infant's death could have been avoided
by: SUBMITTED PHOTOS Dale and Shannon Hickman are in court this week on manslaughter charges after their premature son died nine hours after birth. The jury's task is to decide whether they should have sought standard medical care that might have saved him.

Opening arguments on Wednesday contrasted Oregon City faith healers' belief that their actions have the support of the community with prosecutors' assertion that just one phone call to a professional could have prevented death.

Unlike the child-neglect sentencing in June for Timothy and Rebecca Wyland's failure to seek care of a eye cyst for their infant daughter (who could still fully recover), David Hickman did not survive past his birthday. Dale and Shannon Hickman's two-months-premature boy died less than nine hours after birth in the hands of unlicensed midwives.

The courtroom crowded with church members and media on Sept. 14 marked the fourth Clackamas County case prosecuted in the past two years for religious families accused of not providing medical care for their children.

Jury selection began last week for the second case to reach trial this summer against members of Oregon City's faith-healing Followers of Christ Church.

The jury will have to ponder whether the Hickmans are criminally negligent by not endeavoring to prolong their infant's life by seeking standard medical advice. That's a question defense attorneys argued was prejudicial to a jury and not relevant to the trial, but Circuit Court Judge Robert D. Herndon ruled it to be central to the case.

The child died on Sept. 27, 2009, while attended by lay midwives, both sides agree. Although a treatable bacterial infection was a contributing factor, his cause of death was listed as natural. But are lay midwives an acceptable standard of the community?

The prosecutors argue that David would have lived had the midwives followed standard protocols. In arguing that many communities beside the Followers of Christ use lay midwives, the defense points out that David Hickman had a healthy appetite right away, and was pink, active and crying.

In denying four separate motions by the defense on Sept. 7, Herndon showed that the court was willing to hear testimony from licensed midwives and doctors who will argue that the baby would not have succumbed to complications of bacterial infection if attended by professionals.

The judge said the question will come down to whether the jury accepts that the faith-healing community has set their own community standards, or that they should have accepted the standards set by statewide experts such as Dr. Danny Leonhardt, a specialist in child-abuse pediatrics and chorioamnionitis.

'You've got a pretty major hurdle here ... to keep him from testifying at all,' Herndon said.

Among the four denied motions, the judge affirmed the right of prosecutors to refer to David as a 'victim' but said that the terms 'child' and 'baby' would probably be more appropriate in most instances. Prosecutors will also be able to discuss how the Hickmans eschewed state-licensed medicine even after Shannon Hickman's miscarriage a year before David's birth. She apparently went through 24 hours of labor prior to birth, during which time the Hickmans also avoided calling a licensed professional.

Herndon called these allegations 'relevant evidence and part of the story' appropriate for a jury.

Defense attorneys wanted other pieces of the investigation included for review by the jury, but the judge ruled them to be too inflammatory and irrelevant. A Feb. 28 interview of State Medical Examiner Dr. Clifford Nelson, conducted by District Attorney Investigator Brian Schmautz, alleges that the investigation was conducted outside normal protocol, and Schmautz refers to Nelson's possible use of the term 'witch hunt' nine separate times in the transcript.

Although Schmautz alleges that the case became a criminal investigation before cause of death was determined, the term 'witch hunt' is absent from police reports that will serve to tell the jury the story of the infant's death.

A verdict is expected by the end of October.