Oregon City, USA - When the trial of Dale and Shannon Hickman begins this week in Clackamas County, the curtain again rises on a familiar tragedy, one centered on the death of a child and on parents whose unwavering faith in divine healing may lead them to prison.
The Hickmans are members of the Followers of Christ, an Oregon City faith-healing church. The congregation has a long history of children dying from curable conditions because parents rejected medical care in favor of spiritual treatments.
The Hickmans are charged with second-degree manslaughter.
They are fourth couple prosecuted in the past two years by the Clackamas County District Attorney's Office for failing to seek adequate medical care for a child. In the previous cases, all but one defendant was convicted and sentenced to jail or prison.
The trial over David Hickman's death could last five weeks. Many days will be filled with testimony from medical experts and discussions of prenatal care, midwifery practices and the impact of a bacterial infection on a fetus. As in past Followers cases, religious freedom, parental rights and the government's responsibility to protect children will find their way into the fray.
Court documents, pre-trial hearings and questions asked in jury selection give a sense of the arguments each side may offer.
The jury must consider a couple of key questions: Did the Hickmans fail to recognize that David faced a substantial and unjustifiable risk that could result in serious harm or death? And did they respond to that risk as a reasonable person would. Simply put, did the Hickmans adhere to community standards of care for a medically fragile newborn.
Baby lived 9 hours
In previous Followers cases, the children's medical conditions developed over days, months or years. Jurors in those cases concluded there were obvious warning signs that parents willfully ignored.
This time, death came quickly.
The baby, David Hickman was born two months prematurely. He weighed 3 pounds, 5 ounces. His lungs were underdeveloped, and he lived nine hours. The Hickmans say David appeared healthy then took a sudden dire turn. His skin became gray and his breathing labored.
The birth was attended by female church members who are considered midwives but it is unclear whether they have any medical education.
An autopsy found that the baby died of a bacterial infection of his feeble lungs.
The defense presented their view of the case in pre-trial hearings and documents: Dale Hickman held his newborn son, prayed and anointed him with oil, and the boy died minutes later. Even if the Hickmans had gone to a hospital or called an ambulance the tiny baby would have died before help arrived.
Prosecutors will contend that the Hickmans failed their son and caused his death because of their faith-based aversion to doctors and mainstream medical care. They will argue that the boy's fate was sealed before his conception. They note that Shannon Hickman had a miscarriage a year before David was born and that she did not seek prenatal care when she learned she was pregnant again.
The Hickmans have never been to a doctor, prosecutors said, and they never considered calling for help.
"At the time the baby took his first breath," the Hickmans had an absolute obligation to provide adequate care, deputy district attorney Mike Regan said in a pre-trial hearing.
Defense attorneys John Neidig and Mark Cogan will argue that the Hickmans did nothing wrong. David's death was unforseeable and almost instant.
The defense attorneys claim the Hickmans were singled out for prosecution because of their religious beliefs. They noted that the DA waited a year to file charges against the Hickmans, indicting them shortly after the arrest of Timothy and Rebecca Wyland, also members of the church.
The Wylands failed to take their infant daughter to a doctor for a grotestque growth that almost destroyed her left eye. They were convicted in June of criminal mistreatment and sentenced to 90 days in jail.
The back-to-back arrests of the two couples further inflamed public amimosity toward the church, the defense attorneys said.
Two days after the Wylands were convicted, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber signed a law that removed the remnants of Oregon's legal protection for parents who rely solely on faith healing to meet their children's medical needs. The law, a direct response to the Followers of Christ cases, eliminates spiritual treatment as a defense against all homicide charges and subject parents to mandatory sentencing under Oregon's Measure 11.
The issues of religious and personal freedom will undoubtely surface throughout the Hickman trial.
Neidig put it succinctly during a pre-trial hearing last week. The government should not be allowed to intrude into "this sacred private sphere the family is entitled to."