LETHBRIDGE, Alta. – A judge has found an Alberta couple who treated their son with herbal remedies rather than seek medical attention for him not guilty in the boy’s death.
David and Collet Stephan were charged with failing to provide the necessaries of life to 19-month-old Ezekiel, who died in March 2012.
The medical examiner who did the autopsy said Ezekiel died of bacterial meningitis, but a pathologist called by the defence said the child died from a lack of oxygen to the brain when he was in an ambulance.
Judge begins by reading the charges. Talking about history of the trial. Says Ezikiel had meningitis. Stephans did not know he had it.
Both found not guilty. Loud cheers and weeping in the gallery.
— Jon Muma (@jonmuma) September 19, 2019
Justice Terry Clackson spoke to the court in Lethbridge, Alta., for only four minutes before releasing his written decision.
In it, he wrote that there was no physical evidence that the toddler had died of meningitis and that the Crown had therefore failed to prove its case.
“The child had been sick, had improved, then regressed and was waxing and waning. They were watching him closely for signs of meningitis, just in case, even though he did not appear to have any of the symptoms,” Clackson wrote.
“I have concluded that the Stephans knew what meningitis was, knew that bacterial meningitis could be very serious, knew what symptoms to look for … They thought their son had some sort of croup or flu-like viral infection.”
Supporters in the courtroom cheered and Collet Stephan cried as she hugged her husband.
“It was an emotional roller-coaster. We didn’t know what to expect today,” David Stephan said outside court. “It is the right decision.
“And it is shocking because it has been seven years of our lives fighting this, so it has become part of our identity. It is just a beautiful thought that we can move on with our lives.”
It was the second trial for the Stephans, who were found guilty by a jury in 2016. The Supreme Court of Canada set aside the conviction and ordered a new trial.
Stephan’s father co-founded Truehope Nutritional Support in Raymond, Alta., in 1996 to find a natural treatment for bipolar disorder after his wife took her life.
Over the course of the trial, the Stephans testified that they initially thought Ezekiel had croup, an upper airway infection, and they treated him with natural remedies including a smoothie with garlic, onion and horseradish.
They said he appeared to be recovering at times and they saw no reason to take him to hospital, despite his having a fever and lacking energy.
The did call an ambulance when the boy stopped breathing.
A family friend, who is a nurse and midwife, testified that she advised Collet Stephan the day before to get a medical opinion. The friend feared “something more internal like meningitis.”
David Stephan, who represented himself at trial, argued it was a failure by medical professionals to properly intubate his son that led to his death. Testimony indicated the boy was without oxygen for nearly nine minutes because the ambulance that took him to hospital wasn’t properly stocked with breathing equipment to fit a child.
“The physical evidence supports … (the) conclusion that Ezekiel died because he was deprived of oxygen. That occurred because he stopped breathing and the resulting oxygen deprivation lasted long enough to lead to his death,” Clackson wrote.
Clackson also wrote that Ezekiel was indeed sick, but the law does not impose a duty to seek medical attention for every sick child.
He also wrote that the Crown did not prove medical attention would have saved the boy’s life.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 19, 2019.