Jurors hear father’s thoughts on care

Daily Journal/May 11, 2005
By Michael W. Hoskins

Parents Dewayne and Maleta Schmidt would not have sought medical help for their sick newborn daughter no matter how sick she might have been.

“Absolutely not, absolutely not,” Dewayne Schmidt said to a grand jury last summer about getting medical help. “At no point in time, ever did it cross my mind, no matter how serious or minor it became, that was going to be our course of action. It was never an option for us.”

Their daughter, Rhiana Rose Schmidt, died less than two days after birth. The couple chose prayer over medical intervention.

Now, the Johnson County parents are on trial because of their August 2003 choice.

Jurors read the testimony Tuesday during the first day of trial for the Schmidts, who both are charged with reckless homicide.

“This case is about faith,” defense attorney Carrie Miles said during her opening statement, in which she also read the dictionary definition of the word faith. “Faith in God, faith in doing the right thing, faith in the judicial system. I have faith that you will not find them guilty.”

Miles said the trial is about the separation of church and state, and she indicated prosecutors will not be able to prove their case.

Prosecuting attorneys contend the parents committed a crime by not seeking medical help and their actions caused the baby’s death.

During his opening statement, deputy prosecutor Matt Solomon showed a picture of Rhiana Schmidt to jurors.

“This case is about someone who will never get to make that choice,” Solomon said. “Her death was preventable and treatable. Evidence will show that she should be alive.”

After calling five witnesses, the prosecution rested its case Tuesday afternoon.

Two medical experts said Rhiana’s prognosis would have been excellent had the Schmidts sought medical intervention following the infant’s birth.

A medical expert who specializes in newborn care told the court the Schmidts likely would have known the baby was sick and needed medical help.

Asked three times, Dr. Niceta Bradburn, a neonatologist and director of newborn services at St. Vincent Hospital in Indianapolis, said Rhiana’s prognosis probably would have been excellent had she been brought in to see a doctor. A lay person should be able to recognize certain problems, such as a baby turning blue, Bradburn said, and antibiotics would be the No. 1 treatment. In reading the grand jury testimony, jurors were able to get a glimpse into what the Schmidts’ mind-set is about their daughter’s death and how they view medical care.

“We don’t disbelieve in what (hospitals) have done or have the ability to do,” Dewayne Schmidt’s grand jury testimony said. “In specifics to our religion, we believe that we are commanded to place all our faith in God. We just believe that God requires us to put our faith ... and complete trust within him.”

During his testimony, Dewayne Schmidt compared wearing eyeglasses and going to the dentist to wearing clothes out in public.

“It’s the same as any kind of aid you would need for your body,” he said.

Also testifying for the prosecution were sheriff’s Lt. Mike McElwain, the lead investigator on the case, and deputy Terry Nichalson, who was first officer to arrive at the Schmidts’ home. He described the scene inside the rural Franklin home as surreal because both parents were unexpectedly calm despite their daughter’s death.

The defense will call its first witness this morning. Miles refuses to comment on the case during the trial.

The prosecution and defense are not spending much time disputing the facts of the case.

Both agree Rhiana was born breech with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck.

The baby stopped breathing twice but was revived after a cousin serving as a midwife gave mouth-to-mouth resuscitation for 20 minutes. The newborn turned blue and gray and appeared lifeless, and symptoms returned hours later, prosecutors said.

When Rhiana became sick, the parents called elders from their church to pray for their daughter. The Schmidts both are members of the General Assembly and Church of the First Born, a Morgan County church that advocates prayer and faith healing over medical care.

An autopsy found that the infant died of puerperal sepsis, an infection often acquired at birth and typically treated by antibiotics. A six-member grand jury decided in July the two should be charged.

Johnson Superior Court 2 Judge Cynthia Emkes has limited what attorneys can say about the couple’s religion and church. She said the trial likely will last until Thursday.

A 10-woman, four-man jury, which includes two alternates, is likely to deliver a verdict by week’s end.

If convicted, the Schmidts could face from two years’ probation to eight years in prison.

This is not the first time the couple faced a decision about medical care following birth. In 1999, they also decided to have their first daughter at home, but Maleta Schmidt became incoherent, and the sheriff’s office was called to take her to the hospital.

Outside the courthouse Tuesday, former Sheriff J.D. Richards spoke about his decision to intervene and take Maleta Schmidt to the hospital.

“It was a tough call, a life-or-death situation,” he said. “But we chose life.”

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