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Oregon faith-healing case heads to jury after arguments

Parents charged with manslaughter in baby girl’s death

OREGON CITY, Ore. – Lawyers on Tuesday gave sharply contrasting biographies of a 15-month-old Oregon girl whose parents believe in faith healing and are charged with manslaughter in her death.

The prosecution’s closing argument said that Ava Worthington, of Oregon City, suffered much of her life from a cyst that grew to the size of a softball and squeezed her windpipe and esophagus so that she had difficulty breathing and getting food down – and that after months of stunted development she died of pneumonia. Prosecutor Steven Mygrant said the girl’s parents, Carl Brent and Raylene Worthington, failed to provide the medical care that Oregon law requires.

“They refused to acknowledge that obligation, that responsibility, that duty we have when we bring children into this world, in this state,” Mygrant said.

The defense, however, said the child was “a fat baby” with a healthy appetite, playing vigorously with older children, growing out of her clothes – and dying of sepsis, inflammation stemming from infection, that enveloped her like a flash flood.

The Worthingtons are members of the Followers of Christ, an independent church that shuns conventional medicine for spiritual healing practices such as the laying on of hands and anointing the sick with olive oil.

The Worthingtons are accused of manslaughter and criminal mistreatment. Under Oregon law, a conviction requires only 10 votes from the 12-person jury, which is expected to get the case today.

The defense also criticized the autopsy in the case while the prosecutor said the medical examiner was incorrect in saying in March 2008 that sepsis caused Ava Worthington’s death.

In the girl’s final moments, nobody tried to revive her or call an emergency squad, Mygrant said.

On the weekend she died, he said, “there were three separate occasions when they laid on hands. That’s their 911 call.”

He added, though, that the couple are not on trial for their religious practices but rather for medical neglect.

The trial is the first in the decade since the Oregon Legislature passed a law that bars spiritual healing defenses in most abuse cases, a response to child deaths among churches such as the Followers of Christ.

Defense attorney Mark Cogan argued that the Worthingtons acted as reasonable parents. He said photographs of the girl showed the cyst was “the tiniest” bump only weeks before she died, that she had a seasonal cold, as had other family members, and that she was not feverish.

The parents acted reasonably in their care, which included suctioning phlegm from her mouth, he said.

“In the moment, it seemed like a benign situation,” he said.

Cogan said the autopsy conducted by Dr. Christopher Young, a deputy state medical examiner, had numerous flaws, including mistaken measurements. He pointed to a photo of the child by a desk that showed she was at least a few inches taller than Young reported, 26 inches. He said Young’s work led to a mistaken judgment about the cyst and left important questions unanswered, such as whether the girl’s size was related to a genetic disorder.

After Mygrant said in his closing argument that Young was incorrect in March 2008 when he attributed the death to both bacterial bronchial pneumonia and sepsis, Cogan said the prosecution was “throwing Dr. Young under the bus.”

Cogan represents the father, who goes by his middle name, Brent. Before the case goes to the jury, defense attorney John Neidig, who represents Raylene Worthington, is expected to make a closing argument.


 

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