How many times do you have to do that again before a child dies, and a jury can infer legal malice? Is it a second time, or is that not enough? Is it a third time? —Common Pleas Judge Benjamin Lerner
PHILADELPHIA — A judge upheld murder charges Wednesday against a fundamentalist Christian couple in their infant's faith-healing death, saying things might be different if their toddler hadn't died four years ago "under strikingly similar circumstances."
Their probation in that case required Herbert and Catherine Schaible to seek immediate medical help if another child was sick or injured. But they instead prayed over 8-month-old son Brandon before he died of pneumonia in April, according to their police statements.
Defense lawyer Bobby Hoof argued that Brandon died just three days after he came down with cold and flu symptoms and said there was no evidence of malice, as required for third-degree murder. The judge disagreed.
"They learned in the worst possible way ... exactly what these symptoms could lead to in a child, especially a young child, if not medically cared for," Common Pleas Judge Benjamin Lerner said, referring to the 2009 death of 2-year-old Kent Schaible. "We've been here before ... under strikingly similar circumstances."
About a dozen U.S. children die each year when parents turn to faith healing instead of medicine, typically from highly treatable problems, according to experts. At least one state, Oregon, explicitly banned faith healing as a murder defense after a series of deaths.
The Schaibles are third-generation members and former teachers at the First Century Gospel Church, a small, insular congregation in northeast Philadelphia.
"We believe in divine healing, that Jesus ... died on the cross to break the devil's power," Herbert Schaible, 45, told homicide detectives after Brandon died.
Their seven surviving children are now in foster care.
Catherine Schaible, 44, is out on bail, while her husband remains in custody. She seemed fretful in court but calm afterward, even smiling as she left the courtroom with her parents. She declined to comment. Her lawyer said plea negotiations are possible.
Kent also died of pneumonia, albeit after an illness of more than a week.
The Schaibles were convicted of involuntary manslaughter in his death and placed on 10 years of probation, which included an order to get annual checkups and medical care as needed for their children. Brandon was deemed healthy at a newborn checkup. But Hoof acknowledged the boy didn't see a doctor when he became ill.
"A reasonable parent probably would wait three days to take their child to a doctor," said Hoof, who represents Herbert Schaible.
Lerner seemed especially troubled that Brandon had increasingly labored breathing but still got no medical care.
He compared the current case to that of a parent who repeatedly gave a child peanut butter despite knowing of a potentially deadly allergy to it.
"How many times do you have to do that again before a child dies, and a jury can infer legal malice?" Lerner asked. "Is it a second time, or is that not enough? Is it a third time?"
The Schaibles' pastor, Nelson Clark, has said the couple lost their sons because of a "spiritual lack" in their lives. He has also faulted officials for trying to force his members into "the flawed medical system."
The case returns to court next month, and a trial could be scheduled next year. The Schaibles face 20 to 40 years in prison if convicted of third-degree murder.