Faith-healing case poses thorny legal issues

Catherine and Herbert Schaible are charged in the death of their 8-month-old son, Brandon.
Catherine and Herbert Schaible are charged in the death of their 8-month-old son, Brandon. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 03, 2013

Herbert and Catherine Schaible's faith in the laws of God put them on a collision course with the laws of man when their 8-month-old son, Brandon, fell ill in April.

As members of First Century Gospel Church, a Juniata Park Christian congregation that shuns medical care as an affront to God, they turned to prayer when Brandon became ill with what proved to be a fatal case of bacterial pneumonia.

Prayer was what they turned to in January 2009 when their 2-year-old son, Kent, also died of bacterial pneumonia, a death that led to involuntary-manslaughter convictions, 10 years' probation, and a court order to seek medical care when their seven other children got sick.

For the Schaibles' attorneys, prayer will have nothing to do with defending what legal experts say is one of the thorniest of murder cases.

"These are really difficult and sad cases," said Steve Crampton, general counsel for Liberty Counsel, an Orlando, Fla.-based legal organization that focuses on religious issues.

Crampton said the Schaibles' case "lies at the intersection of society's right to protect the life of the child and the parents' right to both the free exercise of their children's religion and [control over] the upbringing of their children."

The Schaibles are being held without bail pending a June 12 preliminary hearing. The couple's seven children, ranging in age from about 8 to 17, were placed in foster care after Brandon's April 18 death.

Bobby Hoof, the lawyer for Herbert Schaible, 44, declined comment. Mythri Jayaraman, attorney for Catherine Schaible, 43, could not be reached for comment. Both lawyers defended the Schaibles in the 2010 trial.

For the Schaibles and others like them, however, there is no protection when faith and law collide.

"For parents, there is no religious exemption, no absolute license that lets you do what you want in the name of religion," Crampton said.

Donald A. Bosch knows the problems of defending a case like the Schaibles'. The Knoxville, Tenn., lawyer spent a decade representing self-proclaimed faith healer Ariel Ben Sherman, who was charged with neglect in the 2002 death of a 15-year-old girl with bone cancer.

Sherman, pastor of New Life Tabernacle in Lenoir City, Tenn., had counseled congregant Jacqueline Crank that her daughter Jessica could be cured by prayer - not medicine.

As Jessica's condition worsened and authorities were called, Sherman and the Cranks went into hiding. By the time they were found a month later, Jessica had a basketball-size tumor on her shoulder and was near death.

Sherman and Jacqueline Crank were charged with neglect in Jessica's death and, after a protracted journey through Tennessee courts, were found guilty and sentenced to a year's probation for the misdemeanor conviction.

Bosch said that defending Sherman posed an unusual legal question. Jessica Crank's father had died, but the girl and her mother lived in Sherman's house and referred to him as her "spiritual father."

"The issue was, what duty does someone without parental obligations to a minor child have to seek and obtain medical care?" Bosch said.

"I tried to turn the issue on its head," Bosch said. "What criminal responsibility would [Sherman] have had if he had come in, scooped that child up, and taken her to the hospital?"

Bosch said that laws dealing with faith or prayer healing vary among the states: "Generally, the law says that there's a duty to provide reasonable care, but that doesn't mean you have to throw faith out the window. There's a fine line for parents to navigate between faith and reasonable medical care."

Jacqueline Crank is appealing her conviction in the Tennessee courts. Crank's attorney, Gregory P. Isaacs, could not be reached for comment.

Sherman's appeal is over, and he is now beyond the law's reach: the 78-year-old faith healer died Nov. 28 in a South Carolina hospital where he was being treated for small-cell cancer.

The Schaibles' biggest legal problem may be that they have been here before.

They were arrested and tried for involuntary manslaughter in the 2009 death of their son Kent. They sat in court and heard medical experts testify that had Kent been taken to a hospital, or just administered antibiotics, he likely would have survived. They heard the verdict and the judge impose 10 years' probation and order that they get their remaining children to a doctor when they got sick.

Then, on April 18, 8-month-old Brandon died in their Rhawnhurst home, of bacterial pneumonia, without medical attention as his devout parents prayed over him.

The legal repercussions were predictable. The Schaibles were cited for violating probation. Their children were put in foster care. They were charged not with manslaughter but third-degree murder, which in Pennsylvania carries a 20- to 40-year prison term.

And Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Benjamin Lerner ordered them held without bail, citing the risk that they might flee or be harbored by fellow believers.

In their favor, some experts say, is the almost universal description of them as loving, caring parents.

Temple University law professor David Kairys, a veteran criminal and civil rights lawyer, said he thought third-degree murder might still be a stretch for prosecutors.

"I don't see how you can prove intent to kill," Kairys said, referring to one of the components of the third-degree charge. Still, Kairys acknowledged, a jury could find them guilty of the charge under a theory of a "reckless disregard" of the consequences of their acts.

In the Schaibles' first trial, their lawyers argued that religion was not the issue; the parents simply did not know how sick their child was.

This time around, Kairys said, religion may have to be an issue if only to show the couple's mind-set.

"When the jurors get this case, you want a strong feeling among enough jurors that this just isn't a crime," Kairys added. "It's horrible, but they didn't intentionally kill."


Contact Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2985, jslobodzian@phillynews.com, or @joeslobo on Twitter.

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