Communications 2000

Tough Choices
Jury Duty
Friday, May 5, 2000

Imagine that you are serving on a jury that has heard the criminal case against Dennis and Lorie Nixon. Evidence showed them to be outstanding members of the community, devoted parents and devoutly religious. They have 8 living children. Two more died. Mrs. Nixon is currently pregnant with an 11th child. They are on trial charged with involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment in the death of their 16-year-old daughter Shannon.

The Nixons are members of the Faith Tabernacle Congregation, a Christian sect that advocates divine healing. Mr. Nixonís father is pastor of their church. Shannonís health had been bothering her for weeks. At 5 foot 4 inches, she weighed only 100 pounds, and was constantly thirsty. On June 18, she felt weak and dizzy. She felt so bad that she asked to stay home from her job at her fatherís storm door company. She also asked to be "anointed," a procedure her church reserves for extremely serious illnesses. She felt better the next day, but by that evening she was too ill to attend church. She asked to listen to a tape of the sermon instead. When her family returned from church, she told her father "I feel I have my victory!" However, by the next day she was vomiting; and by the day after that she was slipping in and out of consciousness. On the 4th evening she fell into a coma, and died shortly thereafter. An autopsy showed that she died of a heart attack brought on by diabetes. Her blood sugar level had soared to 18 times greater than normal.

During the course of her illness, Shannonís family and congregation did all in their power to help her. They prayed continuously, but refused to call a doctor because their faith teaches that "all disease comes from the devil and that only God can cure illness". Shannon shared these beliefs and never asked for medical care. She told her brother after he asked about her condition, "The devil is fighting me hard", but asked only for prayer and anointment.

Detective Sgt. John Closson, who investigated Shannonís death, testified that Mrs. Nixon told him, "She (Shannon) was afraid of doctors much to the point I am afraid of doctors, because I have no trust in man." She went on to say that, even though she and her husband were devastated by Shannonís death, it was Godís will. Dr. Michael Humphrey, an endocrinologist, testified that Shannon would have had a 97% chance of full recovery if she had been brought into the hospital even as late as the last day of her life.

In his summation, District Attorney William Haberstroh told you that Shannon had been to the dentist and seen a doctor as one of the requirements for getting her driverís license. Youíve also been told that the Nixons pleaded no contest when they were charged in the death of their 8-year-old son, Clayton. He died four years earlier from an untreated ear infection. At that time they were sentenced to probation and community service in a hospital so they could see the effectiveness of modern medicine.

The judge has instructed you that under your stateís law parents are required to protect their children until they are 18 years old. It is now your job to decide whether the Nixons violated that law. For them to be convicted, your entire jury must agree that they did. You are to vote guilty or not guilty on child endangerment, and guilty or not guilty on involuntary manslaughter.

Here are links to some of the primary source material related to this situation.

Parents Face Trial for Shunning Medical Help, April 21, 1997 (The Dubuque Telegraph Herald)

Her Dying Prayers, May 5, 1997 (Time Magazine)

Faith-Healing Couple Sentenced, August 1997 (Freethought Today)

Commonwealth of Pennsylvania versus the Nixons, the decision of the Pennsylvania Superior Court in the Nixon appeal

Commonwealth of Pennsylvania versus the Nixons, legal brief submitted to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in the Nixon appeal