March marks five years since a Marathon Co. girl died from untreated diabetes because her parents prayed for her to get better rather than seek medical care.
Dale and Leilani Neumann were convicted in 2009 of reckless homicide following the death of their 11 year-old daughter, Madeline Kara Neumann. The Weston couple appealed the convictions, and in Dec. 2012, the Supreme Court justices heard oral argument from both sides. No decision has been made yet, but attorneys expect one between now and June; a decision that will undoubtedly set a legal precedent in Wisconsin.
Marathon Co. Circuit Judge Vincent Howard sentenced the Neumanns to 30 days in jail each, every year, for six years. Those on the prosecution believed the sentence would finally bring some justice to Madeline Kara.
"Nothing will ever bring back Madeline," said John Larson, the Marathon Co. medical examiner. "That can't be done, we can't go back. Does somebody need to be held responsible for the decisions that were made so that this doesn't happen to another child? I think that there needs to me a message to the community, that parents will be held responsible for the care of their minor children."
Three and a half years later, though, Dale and Leilani Neumann have yet to spend a single day behind bars.
"I think it's frustrating," Larson said. He has been involved in the investigation from the beginning.
"I recalled that it occurred on an Easter Sunday," Larson said. "I was contacted by law enforcement and responded to St. Clare's Hospital where I examined the body."
Larson says he found a girl who looked extremely malnourished. It was later confirmed that she had died from symptoms associated with Type I Diabetes; a disease that's quite treatable today with modern medicine.
"To see a child going through the symptoms of diabetes, and for the parents to not become extremely concerned at some point to take some action, is disconcerting to me," he said.
Deeply religious, the Neumanns considered their daughter's illness a "test of faith," and prayed for her to get well. In Wisconsin's child abuse statute, treatment through prayer, also known as faith healing, is protected, even when it results in great bodily harm of the child.
"The Neumanns were entitled to act under that statutory protection," said UW-Madison law professor Byron Lichstein. "And that's why prosecuting them for behavior they were told was legal, creates a constitutional problem."
Lichstein now represents Leilani Neumann in pursuing the appeal. The judge asked the law school to take the case because it covers new ground in Wisconsin. The issue has never been addressed in the state, and whether or not the convictions are overturned, will affect any future cases of a similar nature.
"What's at stake for the public is the question of, when is it fair to tell people on one hand, that their behavior is protected, and then to turn around and prosecute them for behavior that they're told is protected," Lichstein said. "So it's important in the general public interest, that the government speak clearly to people about what they are and are not allowed to do. And that's what's at stake here. What's at stake with respect to faith healing, is a question of, should the Legislature amend this law?"
The state declined to comment on the case since it is still pending, but in December, assistant attorney general Maura Whelan argued parents who pray over a sick child can't be protected under prayer immunity after the child is in grave danger of dying.
If the convictions are overturned, the prosecution will have to decide whether to dismiss the case or try it again. If they're not overturned, the Neumanns' attorneys say they will look at additional options for pursuing the appeal further.
In the meantime, the Neumanns have wracked up around $110,000 in attorney and court fees. Judge Howard ruled they weren't financially able to pay for their own lawyers at the time. So far Dale and Leilani have paid back around $2,000 of the money they owe Marathon Co. taxpayers.
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