Exorcism death sparks debate

Charges too lenient, critics say; questions focus on religion, intent

The Charlotte Observer/August 29, 2003
By Monica Davey

Milwaukee -- Terrance Cottrell Jr. died on the floor of a hot storefront church in a strip mall.

His shirt was drenched in sweat when the church members who were holding him down, saying they wanted to rid him of demons, finally noticed that he was dead. He had urinated on himself, and his small brown face had a bluish cast.

He was 8.

Terrance, who was autistic, was supposed to start third-grade special-education classes at 65th Street Elementary School on Tuesday. Instead, he will be buried here today.

Relatives and neighbors on the city's north side this week mourned the boy's asphyxiation death with small tributes -- three stuffed animals and a few room deodorizer candles on the window ledge of his apartment, a photocopy of his picture taped to the church door.

Some also denounced a prosecutor's plans for consequences in the death, ruled a homicide by the medical examiner, as far too lenient.

Ray Anthony Hemphill, a preacher who led the spiritual healing service for Terrance, has been charged with felony child abuse, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison and five years of court supervision. No one else involved in the service -- including the boy's mother, who helped to hold him down -- has been charged with a crime in connection with the death.

Hemphill said that during the sessions that he led for Terrance, he and others would pray, sing and force the boy to lie on the floor, holding down his feet, arms, head and chest when he struggled to get up, kicked and scratched.

The point, Hemphill said, was to deliver the boy from demons that he believed possessed Terrance, as revealed by Terrance's erratic behavior -- the way he jumped from his chair and made loud noises.

Terrence had undergone several such healing sessions in recent weeks, according to court documents. The boy's grandmother said the sessions should never have been conducted and that Hemphill should face more serious charges.

"How can a child be dead and these people get charged with child abuse?" Mary Luckett, the grandmother, said this week. "I can't even understand what these people are thinking. I don't care if it was a church. I don't care what they were trying to do."

Hemphill, 45, who was released from jail on Wednesday until his next court hearing with a promise that he would conduct no spiritual healing sessions or exorcisms, could not be reached for comment Thursday. He told investigators that he had no formal training as a minister, aside from a calling from the Lord, and was ordained by his brother.

The brother, David Hemphill, pastor of the church, tiny, independent Faith Temple Church of the Apostolic Faith, said the family would have nothing more to say about what had happened.

The prosecutors, meanwhile, defended their decision to pursue abuse charges against Ray Hemphill. They say that under Wisconsin law they could not charge Hemphill with second-degree reckless homicide -- or some even more serious homicide charge -- without proving that he was aware that his actions could create a substantial risk to another person.

That would have been difficult, if not impossible, to show, said Mark Williams, an assistant district attorney in Milwaukee.

"That is a subjective test," Williams said. "What matters from a legal sense is what was in his mind when he was doing what he was doing. And in his mind, he was trying to help this child."

Williams added, "This wasn't a normal situation." The fact that religious practices were involved, he acknowledged, complicates the legal situation.

But critics, including some legal scholars, said Terrance's case revealed prosecutors' general discomfort with trying to draw lines on matters of religion.

"If the child had died in a home, there'd be a whole array of charges, maybe including child abuse but also homicide or manslaughter," said Marci Hamilton, a professor at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in Manhattan. "When a religious entity enters the picture, prosecutors get very nervous."

Hamilton described a child-abuse charge in such a case as "extraordinarily weak" and said the decision sent a devastating signal.

"It sends a message that if you are doing anything -- whether it's holding down a child or refusing to give them medical treatment or whatever it is -- if it's religious, then they're not accountable to the laws, and that's not right."

Ray Hemphill told investigators that he had been holding sessions to help Terrance for three weeks before his death, according to the criminal complaint against Hemphill.

Terrance's grandmother, Luckett, acknowledged that he was not an easy child. Terrance, known as Junior, was diagnosed with autism when he was 2. He rarely talked, and when he did, it was only a word or two. Neighbor children said he snatched their Popsicles. His younger sister, a toddler, was the only one he seemed to obey, Luckett said.

He was being reared by his mother, Pat Cooper, who is single and in her late 20s. She had a relationship with Luckett's son, the boy's father, that has long since ended, Luckett said.

Cooper, who met Hemphill and joined the church a few months ago, was part of the evening prayer sessions for her son, including the fatal one last Friday, the police said.

That night, Cooper held down one of Terrance's feet, she told investigators. Two other women held down other parts of his body, and Hemphill held his head and body down.

Cooper said she saw Hemphill's knee pressed into the boy's chest at one point, but Hemphill, who weighs nearly 150 pounds, said that he, at various points, lay on top of the boy, chest to chest.

The medical examiner later found extensive bruising on the back of the boy's neck and said he died of mechanical asphyxiation from pressure placed on his chest. About two hours into the praying and the struggling, Hemphill said, he got up, but Terrance was still.

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