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Imagine that you are serving on a jury that has heard the criminal case against Dennis and Lorie Nixon. Evidence showed them to be outstanding members of the community, devoted parents and devoutly religious. They have 8 living children. Two more died. Mrs. Nixon is currently pregnant with an 11th child. They are on trial charged with involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment in the death of their 16-year-old daughter Shannon.
The Nixons are members of the Faith Tabernacle Congregation, a Christian sect that advocates divine healing. Mr. Nixon’s father is pastor of their church. Shannon’s health had been bothering her for weeks. At 5 foot 4 inches, she weighed only 100 pounds, and was constantly thirsty. On June 18, she felt weak and dizzy. She felt so bad that she asked to stay home from her job at her father’s storm door company. She also asked to be "anointed," a procedure her church reserves for extremely serious illnesses. She felt better the next day, but by that evening she was too ill to attend church. She asked to listen to a tape of the sermon instead. When her family returned from church, she told her father "I feel I have my victory!" However, by the next day she was vomiting; and by the day after that she was slipping in and out of consciousness. On the 4th evening she fell into a coma, and died shortly thereafter. An autopsy showed that she died of a heart attack brought on by diabetes. Her blood sugar level had soared to 18 times greater than normal.
During the course of her illness, Shannon’s family and congregation did all in their power to help her. They prayed continuously, but refused to call a doctor because their faith teaches that "all disease comes from the devil and that only God can cure illness". Shannon shared these beliefs and never asked for medical care. She told her brother after he asked about her condition, "The devil is fighting me hard", but asked only for prayer and anointment.
Detective Sgt. John Closson, who investigated Shannon’s death, testified that Mrs. Nixon told him, "She (Shannon) was afraid of doctors much to the point I am afraid of doctors, because I have no trust in man." She went on to say that, even though she and her husband were devastated by Shannon’s death, it was God’s will. Dr. Michael Humphrey, an endocrinologist, testified that Shannon would have had a 97% chance of full recovery if she had been brought into the hospital even as late as the last day of her life.
In his summation, District Attorney William Haberstroh told you that Shannon had been to the dentist and seen a doctor as one of the requirements for getting her driver’s license. You’ve also been told that the Nixons pleaded no contest when they were charged in the death of their 8-year-old son, Clayton. He died four years earlier from an untreated ear infection. At that time they were sentenced to probation and community service in a hospital so they could see the effectiveness of modern medicine.
The judge has instructed you that under your state’s law parents are required to protect their children until they are 18 years old. It is now your job to decide whether the Nixons violated that law. For them to be convicted, your entire jury must agree that they did. You are to vote guilty or not guilty on child endangerment, and guilty or not guilty on involuntary manslaughter.
Here are links to some of the primary source material related to this situation.
Couple's Faith in Prayer an Issue in Death, April 22, 1997
Her Dying Prayers, May 5, 1997 (Time Magazine)
Faith-Healing Parents Lose Appeal, Pittsburg Post-Gazette, November 29, 2000
Commonwealth of Pennsylvania versus the Nixons, the decision of the Pennsylvania Superior Court in the Nixon appeal
Commonwealth of Pennsylvania versus the Nixons, legal brief submitted to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in the Nixon appeal
US Supreme Court Will Not Hear Parent's Appeal, Pittsburg Post-Gazette, May 1, 2001
Prayerful Parents Go to Prison, Pittsburg Post-Gazette, June 1, 2001
The Nixon case is not unique.
On February 4, 2009, Sherry Colb (writing for FindLaw News Online) explored the case of an 11 year old Wisconsin girl who also died of untreated diabetes while her parents and family prayed for her recovery. The case was also explored in a Mother Jones article in May 2009.
On September 1, 2000, many news outlets reported on the case of a Massachusetts woman ordered by a court to undergo medical care to protect her unborn child. The following are links to the story in The Washington Post, and on NPR's Morning Edition.
In mid-February 2001, the New York Times reported on the the legal rights of U.S. parents who want to deny medical care to children because of religious conviction. (Access to this article might require a free subscription to the Times' online service.)
In 1998, The Oregonian published a very good series on the legal issues surrounding religious freedom, believers in faith-healing, and child protection issues. To see it online, click here.
Here is the link to a report on a study published on April 5, 1998 by the American Academy of Pediatrics in their journal called Pediatrics.
Lastly, here is the link to a 1998 TIME magazine report on the situation in Oregon.
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original web posting: Wednesday, May 31, 2000
last modified: Sunday, September 19, 2010