BOSTON — The state's highest court on Wednesday overturned the manslaughter conviction of a Christian Science couple whose son died after they relied on spiritual rather than medical healing.
But the court did not rule out all prosecutions of parents who rely on spiritual healing. It said they can be found guilty of involuntary manslaughter if they are found to be "wanton and reckless" in their care of a child.
David and Ginger Twitchell were convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years of probation in the death of their 2-year-old son, Robyn, who died in 1986 from a bowel obstruction.
In a 6-1 decision, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court overturned the verdict on a narrow point of law. The justices said the Twitchells "reasonably believed" that they could rely on spiritual treatment without fear of criminal prosecution because a church publication David Twitchell had read suggested as much. That argument should have been presented to the jury, the court said.
During Robyn's five-day illness, the family retained a Christian Science practitioner and consulted with other Christian Science Church officials.
The church, founded in 1879 and based in Boston, teaches that physical disease can be healed by spiritual means alone.
The court left it to prosecutors to decide on a retrial. Assistant Suffolk County Dist. Atty. Robert Gittens said no decision had been made.
Both sides claimed at least some victory.
"The law is now clear: Parents cannot sacrifice the lives of their children in the name of religious freedom," Gittens said.
The Twitchells, who live in Brentwood, N.Y., declined to comment Wednesday. Their attorney, Stephen Lyons, said he was "absolutely delighted" that the convictions had been overturned.
Between 1980 and 1990, seven Christian Science parents in the United States were prosecuted on charges ranging from murder and manslaughter to neglect. Four of those were convicted, with two convictions eventually being overturned. One set of parents pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, and two cases were dismissed.