Oregon City faith-healing couple plead guilty in infant's death
In a move aimed at striking at the heart of an Oregon City faith-healing church, prosecutors got what they hope is a major victory Monday.
In an unprecedented court hearing, the parents of a newborn baby who died not only pleaded guilty to the infant's death but also had to write a letter to other members of the Followers of Christ Church, instructing them that they should have sought medical care for their daughter, Ginnifer in March of 2017.
The written statement they signed says, "We should have sought adequate medical care for our children and everyone in the church should always seek adequate medical care for our children."
Under the plea bargain, the letter by Sarah and Travis Mitchell must be posted in the church. In addition, Sarah's father — Walter White — also had to write a similar letter denouncing faith healing, which will also be posted in the church in Oregon City.
Clackamas County district attorneys hope the letters will carry significant weight because White is the patriarch of the church. His father, also named Walter White, was the original church minister who brought the sect to Oregon City, after breaking off from other faith-healing congregations in Idaho. Church insiders told KOIN 6 News that when the elder White died in 1969, he was the last minister of the congregation of about 2,000 members. For the last 48 years, the church has operated without a preacher, instead relying on a core group of elders for leadership.
The unusual plea bargain allows the Mitchells to escape murder charges. They pleaded guilty to six years and eight months in prison for criminally negligent homicide. They've been in jail for the last 13 months, and will credit for that time served meaning they will spend another five and a half years in prison.
The Mitchells are the fifth set of parents of the Followers of Christ Church to be prosecuted in the last 10 years, after Oregon changed laws to prosecute faith-healing parents. Sarah's sister Shannon Hickman went to prison along with her husband when their baby died in 2009. Sarah was present at her nephew's death, which gave prosecutors leverage in her case. Prosecutors believe she could not argue she was unable to foresee the outcome of not getting her own baby medical treatment.
Lack of foresight was an issue with the first Followers of Christ trial in 2009. Carl and Raylene Worthington were acquitted of manslaughter in the faith-healing death of their daughter, Ava. The judge did not allow prosecutors to tell jurors about the dozens of children buried at the church cemetery south of Oregon City. After the trial, at least one juror said if he had known about the bad outcomes of the church's faith-healing history, he would have pushed for conviction.
In this latest case, Sarah gave birth to two girls at her parents' home in the 14000 block of South Lodger Road. Ginnifer's sister Evelyn survived.
Dr. Karen Gunson of the Oregon Medical Examiner's Office said Ginnifer was born prematurely. She said there were complications with the baby's lungs and oxygen getting into her bloodstream. An autopsy showed the infant died of natural causes, according to Gunson.
Family members and other people from the church were present for the births.
No one called 911 when one of the babies, Ginnifer Mitchell, developed breathing problems, deputies said. Church elder Carl Hansen called the medical examiner after the infant died.
Suzi Shumaker, a former member of the Followers of Christ Church, said their scriptures tell them not to put faith in doctors.
Oregon changed laws to prosecute faith-healing parents for kids. It's still legal in Idaho despite calls from police, doctors and former members.