Couple accused in death of daughter, 12, seek to exclude mention of faith healing

Albany Times Democrat, Oregon/April 18, 2014

By Kyle Odegard

Defense attorneys for Travis and Wenona Rossiter, an Albany couple accused of manslaughter for the death of their 12-year-old daughter in February 2013, are seeking to exclude evidence of religious beliefs or practices during their trial.

Judge Daniel Murphy made no decision in the matter during Friday’s Circuit Court hearing at the Linn County Courthouse, but said he would do so “as soon as possible.”

The Rossiters are members of the Church of the First Born, a fundamentalist sect that believes traditional medical treatment is sinful, and instead trust in God to heal them through faith, according to police and court documents.

The prosecution intends to show that Syble Rossiter, 12, was deprived of life-saving medical care, and her parents instead resorted to faith-healing rites.

“They knew she was in great peril. ... They didn’t seek out medical care, and the reason they didn’t do it was their religious beliefs,” Prosecutor Keith Stein said. “This is what the case is about, and in truth, this is what happened.”

Mark Heslinga, defense attorney for Wenona Rossiter, said evidence of religious beliefs would be prejudicial.

“My client is requesting he be tried for the actions of that day, not for his religious beliefs,” said Tim Felling, Travis Rossiter’s attorney.

Several other motions were discussed on Friday.

Murphy ruled in favor of a defense request to exclude information about the death of Wenona Rossiter’s brother at trial.

Anthony Hays, 7, died of leukemia in 1994, after his parents failed to provide medical care for him.

In 1996, a Linn County jury convicted his father, Loyd Hays of Brownsville, on charges of criminally negligent homicide. He was sentenced to five years’ probation.

Hays’ wife, Christina, was acquitted.

They were the first people in Oregon to be prosecuted for following their religion rather than taking a sick child for medical care.

Murphy said the two children died of completely separate causes, so he didn’t see the relevance.

Murphy also ruled against allowing evidence of prior bad acts regarding a lack of medical care for Syble Rossiter.

“It doesn’t prove they acted recklessly in this case,” he said.

The couple also will be tried together, rather than separately, although dates have not been set.

Murphy denied a defense motion to exclude the testimony of a doctor specializing in child diabetes.

Syble Rossiter died of diabetes complications, according to court paperwork.

Stein said that Syble Rossiter had such dramatic weight loss in the month before she died that a teacher confronted Wenona Rossiter about the issue.

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