OREGON CITY, Ore. (KOIN) — 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.
KOIN 6 News was the first news organization to report this plea.
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 Matthew White, who goes my Matt — also had to sign the same letter denouncing faith healing, which will also be posted in the church in Oregon City.
The Clackamas County District Attorney hopes the letters will carry significant weight because White is a patriarch of the church. His grandfather, 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 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 6 years 8 months in prison for criminally negligent homicide. They’ve been in jail for the last 13 months, and will get credit for time served meaning they will spend another 5 and a half years in prison.
The Mitchells are the 5th 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 S. Lodger Road. Ginnifer’s sister, Evelyn survived.
Dr. Karen Gunson of the Oregon Medical Examiners 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.
The man standing in back on the right was Minister Walter White. Under his guidance, so many children died as members of the Followers of Christ Church in Oregon City with its faith healing beliefs. pic.twitter.com/iA1XlD2zf9— Dan Tilkin (@DanTilkinKOIN6) July 9, 2018