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Top Wisconsin court upholds convictions in prayer death

By Brendan O'Brien

(Reuters) - The Wisconsin Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld the homicide convictions of a mother and father who prayed for their dying daughter instead of seeking medical care.

Madeline Neumann, 11, died in 2008 from undiagnosed diabetes at her home in Weston, Wisconsin. Her parents, Dale and Leilani Neumann, were convicted in separate trials of second-degree reckless homicide.

The parents were sentenced in 2009 to 10 years of probation and six months in jail.

The couple's lawyers appealed the convictions. They contended that state law allowed the Neumanns, who identify themselves as Pentecostal Christians, to treat the girl's illness with prayer and protected them from being charged with child abuse.

In a 6-1 decision, the justices ruled that state laws on child abuse and reckless homicide "provide sufficient notice that the parents' conduct could have criminal consequences if their daughter died." The justices also ruled that the jury instructions were correct.

The ruling "was pretty devastating" for the couple, said attorney Steven Miller, who represented Dale Neumann. "This whole thing has been a very long, painful ordeal."

Officials at the Wisconsin State Department of Justice declined to comment on the ruling.

Miller said the case raises federal constitutional issues and the couple may consider appealing to the federal courts for relief.

"At this point, we're trying to let the clients mentally process this result," Miller said in a telephone interview. "Later, we will sit down and talk about the next step, if any."

Seventeen states including Wisconsin have laws that allow defendants to argue religious defenses to felony crimes against children, according to the Kentucky-based organization, Children's Healthcare Is a Legal Duty, which tracks cultural and religious issues affecting children.

Wisconsin's treatment-through prayer provision does not exempt parents from the state's second-degree reckless homicide statute, according to the ruling.

More than 300 children have died since 1975 because medical care was withheld from them on religious grounds, with about one-fourth of the deaths prosecuted, the organization said.

(Additional reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Gerald E. McCormick and Andre Grenon)

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