Trial Set To Begin For Couple Accused Of Letting Baby Die

Parents Belong To Church That Advocates Prayer Healing

Associated Press/May 6, 2005

Franklin, Ind. -- The trial of a couple whose ailing newborn daughter died when they rejected medical treatment in favor of prayer may focus more on facts than faith.

Dewayne and Maleta Schmidt are charged with reckless homicide in the August 2003 death of Rhiana Rose Schmidt, who grew ill after she was born at home. Jury selection in their trial began Friday in Johnson Superior Court.

The couple belong to a church that advocates prayer and faith healing over medical intervention. Instead of seeking a doctor's help, prosecutors said, the parents called church elders to their home to pray for the child, who died less than two days later.

An autopsy found that the infant died of puerperal sepsis, an infection acquired at birth and typically treated by antibiotics.

While the case touches on the boundaries of freedom of religion, a series of attorney's motions and court orders leave it unclear how large a role those issues will play in the trial.

"I think there's going to be some of that come in, and it's just a question of where the line is going to be drawn," said Daylon Welliver, the deputy prosecutor trying the case.

That is because Judge Cynthia Emkes has issued orders restricting testimony regarding the Schmidts' religious beliefs and those of their church, the General Assembly and Church of the Firstborn.

Prosecutors sought to bar the Schmidts from using their beliefs as a defense, while the couple's attorney, Carrie J. Miles, sought to prevent state witnesses from characterizing the Church of the Firstborn as "cultlike."

Emkes granted both requests, within limits.

While defense witnesses can testify about religious conduct -- such as praying -- that occurred during Rhianna's birth and death, Welliver explained, the defense cannot assert religion as a defense under Emkes' order.

The Associated Press left repeated phone messages seeking comment from Miles.

Another order prohibits the state from conveying to the jury any evidence or testimony characterizing the Church of the Firstborn without first obtaining Emkes' permission outside the hearing of jurors.

The church does not have paid clergy, according to the Encyclopedia of American Religions. Instead, church elders lead services and other church activities. No official membership rolls are kept, and researchers estimate the church has about 30 congregations nationwide.

The church's belief in faith-healing is rooted in the elders' interpretation of specific verses in the King James version of the Bible, primarily in James 5:14-15, Indiana church elder Tom Nation has said.

The verses read, in part: "Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.

"And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up ..."

Children born to members of the church in Colorado and Oregon also have died after their parents refused medical treatment.

Rhianna was the third child of parents attending the church near Morgantown to die since 1998 after family members refused medical treatment, according to published reports.

The Schmidts' other daughter was delivered by Caesarean after Maleta Schmidt was taken to a hospital over her religious objections, according to court documents, but that evidence was barred from being introduced.

If convicted, the Schmidts each could face two to eight years in prison. Prosecutors said in court papers that they intend to seek the longer penalty.

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