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Jury convicts Oregon City faith healers of manslaughter

Dale and Shannon Hickman criminally negligent in not seeking professional care for their premature son

Jurors in the latest Oregon City faith healing trial reached a guilty verdict Thursday against Dale and Shannon Hickman. The Hickmans will be sentenced for second-degree manslaughter in failing to seek medical treatment for their son who was born two months premature.

Under the watch of unlicensed midwives who prayed and anointed the baby with oils when he turned grey in the last hour of his life, David Hickman lived less than nine hours during his birthday in September 2009.

From the beginning of legal sparring, lawyers on both sides made the crux of the case about whether a reasonable person would have called for professional help under the circumstances. This elevated the findings of experts and made much of the emotional testimony from the Hickmans and their brethren largely irrelevant to the case.

Defense attorneys Mark Cogan and John Neidig argued that the baby's condition came on suddenly and that their clients were singled out by association with the church whose members have been convicted under similar circumstances, most recently in a case earlier this summer. Prosecutors John Wentworth and Mike Regan of the Clackamas County District Attorney's Office emphasized that the Hickmans had plenty of time to call for professional help, knowing that their son was premature.

Although the Hickmans are members of the Followers of Christ Church in Oregon City, which is known for its refusal to seek medical care, the religious aspect was not the focus of the trial.

But this may be the last faith healing case to avoid using accused parents' beliefs as evidence. The Oregon Legislature passed a bill earlier this year to repeal the remaining religious exemptions for parents or guardians pertaining to medical care of sick children.

Giving the changing political climate and a previous acquittal, many Followers had hoped for a not-guilty verdict right up to the end of a dramatic trial that extended nearly three weeks.

Both sides managed to manipulate the data to their advantage in grilling Nicole Smith, an expert witness biostatistician with the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board. Of the 1,200 to 1,500 home births annually in the state, unlicensed midwives oversaw 240 to 300 of them. Only 40 unlicensed home births occurred in 2007 in Clackamas County.

'Most parents provide medical care for their children,' Wentworth said.

Cogan pointed out the social norms trend more to unlicensed home births in Clackamas County. Midwives without licenses oversee almost half, or 43.5 percent, of home births in the county, compared to 27.3 percent of at-home births statewide.

Smith said it was unclear from the data whether the presence of a faith-healing church in Oregon City was skewing the data.

But experts such as Dr. Joseph W. Kaempf, a neonatologist for Northwest Permanente, likely weighed heavier in the minds of jurors by pointing out how organizations like March of Dimes have made it well known that the greater the prematurity, the greater the likelihood of death. Kaempf mentioned that home births are not recommended by the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, nor by the American Academy of Pediatrics, although non-licensed midwives attending births is legal in the state of Oregon.

Kaempf testified, 'So do we have home births? Yes. Can they be done safely? Yes. Are they recommended for any fetus with any complication? Absolutely not. Are they recommended anywhere in the United States or the first world by ACOG, AAP, similar organizations in Europe less than 35 weeks? Absolutely not.'

Holly Scholles, a licensed Estacada midwife, called the actions of the Hickmans under the circumstances 'unconscionable.' Scholles, who is also president of the Midwifery Education Accreditation Council, testified that legal obligations for midwives to call for help in such premature births stemmed from a longstanding professional tradition.