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Parents Tried In Teen's Death Rejected Medicine
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Parents Tried In Teen's Death Rejected Medicine

Law

Parents Tried In Teen's Death Rejected Medicine

Parents Tried In Teen's Death Rejected Medicine
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For the second time in seven months, Oregon authorities are pursuing homicide charges against members of a small religious sect. In both cases, the kids died of treatable conditions, while their parents used prayer, rather than medicine, on them.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Jurors in Oregon are set to decide the fate of parents accused of homicide in the death of their teenage son. He died of an illness that his parents never provided him medical treatment for. Instead, they prayed. Its the second faith-healing case in Oregon in seven months, and both cases involve deaths in the same family. Rob Manning, of Oregon Public Broadcasting, reports.

ROB MANNING: Sixteen-old Neil Beagley grew up in close-knit family. His mother, Marci, home-schooled him in the morning and afternoons, hed spend with his dad at construction sites. In the spring of 2008, the family suffered a devastating blow when Neils 15-month-old niece, Ava Worthington, died of complications from a blood infection. Neils dad, Jeff Beagley, says Neil seemed physically ill from grief.

Mr. JEFF BEAGLEY: Yeah, he seemed to have a stomach ache and stuff, a lot, from all the stress, and he was upset all the time and trying to deal with her death.

MANNING: But Neil Beagley was also suffering from an undiagnosed renal disease. It would kill him three months after Ava died. Doctors say proper medical treatment couldve avoided both deaths.

But the familys church - a small, insular group called the Followers of Christ, centered in suburban Portland - preaches prayer rather than medicine to treat illness. Neil Beagleys mother, Marci, says thats what Neil believed, too.

Ms. MARCI BEAGLEY: He said he wanted to put his faith in God.

MANNING: The practices of the Followers of Christ helped push Oregon, more than 10 years ago, to join a growing number of states where faith healing can't be used to shield parents from prosecution. So as Jeff and Marci Beagley defend themselves from criminally negligent homicide charges, theyre arguing, instead, that Neil didn't seem that sick.

Avas parents, in the first faith-healing case last July, made that argument convincingly, and their trial resulted in only one of them serving a light jail sentence. Last week, Jeff Beagley testified that his son, Neil, appeared to have a bad flu until the night he stopped breathing.

Mr. BEAGLEY: It didn't seem like he was that bad, that he would die or anything like that. So it was just a total shock to me. I think I just - I was just kind of sitting there, crying. I don't know what else I did.

MANNING: During questioning from prosecutor Steve Mygrant, Neils mother, Marci Beagley, conceded that doctors were virtually foreign to her kids.

Mr. STEVE MYGRANT (Attorney): Have you ever taken any of your children to a doctor?

Ms. BEAGLEY: A dentist or oral surgeon, eye doctor.

Mr. MYGRANT: How about a medical doctor that would treat illnesses?

Ms. BEAGLEY: No.

MANNING: Defense attorneys wanted jurors to focus on the teens vague symptoms that, they argued, any reasonable parents mightve missed. They said faith healing was not the point. Lead prosecutor Greg Horner told jurors not to ignore the faith issue, as defense attorneys wanted them to.

Mr. GREG HORNER (Attorney): Of course they don't want you to think about faith healing, because it undercuts their whole position. And from the states perspective, it explains what is otherwise inexplicable.

MANNING: But Greg Horner also prosecuted Ava Worthingtons parents, and he couldnt get the tougher charges to stick in that trial. Legal experts say the best Horner might hope for is to scare some other church members that they could be arrested if they don't bring their sick kid to a doctor.

Prosecutors are hoping for more then that. Greg Horner closed forcefully by arguing that children never die from what killed Neil Beagley. And more broadly, he pleaded for a message to be sent to the Followers of Christ with a conviction.

As jurors prepared to deliberate Friday afternoon, Marci Beagley sobbed, uncontrollably, at the defense table.

For NPR News, Im Rob Manning in Portland, Oregon.

(Soundbite of music)

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