SJC to rule on cult mother case

Pregnant pause may bring prison birth

Boston Herald, September 8, 2000
By Dave Wedge

The state's highest court will decide whether an expectant Norfolk County mother has a right to intervene in a controversial decision to hospitalize a pregnant Attleboro cult member against her will.

Last night, state Supreme Judicial Court Justice Ruth Abrams delayed ruling on an emergency appeal filed against Attleboro Juvenile Court Judge Kenneth Nasif's order to hospitalize Rebecca Corneau, instead deciding to send the case to the full court for a hearing.

The appeal, filed by attorney Wendy Murphy on behalf of a pregnant Norfolk County woman identified only as Barbara F., claims Nasif's ruling violates women's privacy rights guaranteed under the Roe vs. Wade abortion decision. Abrams didn't address the constitutional issues of the appeal in her one-page order, nor did she comment on Nasif's controversial ruling.

One source said Abrams' order was akin to "passing the buck," and could render the appeal moot because Corneau will most likely give birth within days - before an SJC hearing is held.

"Abrams basically said, `this is a lemon and I'm not going to suck on it myself,' " the source said.

The ruling came hours after Corneau, 32, was sent by Nasif back to the Neil J. Houston House - a hospital which caters to pregnant prison inmates - for 30 days or until she gives birth. A team of doctors from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center will be on hand in the facility to help deliver the baby.

In re-committing Corneau, Nasif cited her repeated refusal to submit to a medical examination and passionately expressed fears that the new baby could suffer the same fate as their last child, Jeremiah, who is believed to have suffocated during a home birth last spring. Corneau claims the boy was stillborn.

"I sense this child is saying to me, `I want to live. I don't want to die like my brother Jeremiah did,' " Nasif said. "There's a real possibility (the unborn child) could die as well. This cannot be allowed to happen again."

A "friend of the court" brief decrying Nasif's actions was filed yesterday by the American Civil Liberties Union, but was not addressed, sources said. During the hearing, Corneau's jailed husband, David, asked to talk to a lawyer, prompting speculation from prosecutors that there may be a chink in the armor of silence surrounding the tight-lipped sect.

"At this point, I would like to speak to someone," David Corneau told Nasif. David Corneau, also 32, has remained silent since an investigation began last November into Jeremiah's death, and that of the boy's 10-month-old cousin, Samuel Robidoux, who prosecutors say starved to death. Neither body has been found.

David Corneau, now being represented by court-appointed attorney Jane Sullivan, is one of eight members of the fringe group behind bars for stonewalling a grand jury probing the deaths.

"The fact that he's talking to someone outside of this cult is a positive step," Bristol County District Attorney Paul F. Walsh Jr. said. One source said Corneau's flip-flop is significant because he married into the cult, just like two other people who defected from the fringe fundamentalist group.

According to Walsh, doctors will allow Corneau to have a natural child birth - as she wishes - and will only intervene in an emergency. Corneau has repeatedly refused medical exams, citing her religious belief that seeing a doctor would be like "bowing to a false God."

Walsh says Houston House officials reported that the baby has dropped and that Corneau could give birth any day now.

"It appears she is farther along than we thought," he said. "We are not far away from a child birth here."

Upon the birth, a hearing will be held to determine whether the child should be placed into state Department of Social Services custody, along with 13 other children taken from the group.

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