Ignorance, Faith Healing, and Murder

There is an awful and very difficult criminal case proceeding in Philadelphia involving parents who failed to obtain emergency medical care for their 7 month-old child. The child died of bacterial pneumonia and dehydration. The parents have been charged with third degree murder as well as involuntary manslaughter.

In this post, I want to focus on the murder charge. Pennsylvania uses the common law term, “malice,” to describe this type of murder. In Pennsylvania, murder in the first degree is done with the specific intent to kill; murder in the second degree is felony murder; and murder in the third degree is a catchall category for all other murders done with malice. In Commonwealth v. Overby, 836 A.2d 20 (Pa. 2003), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed the following jury instruction involving the charge of murder in the third degree: “Malice in Pennsylvania has a special meaning. It does not mean simple ill will. Malice is a shorthand way of referring to the three different mental states that the law requires as being bad enough to make a killing murder. Thus, a killing is with malice if the killer acted, first, with an intent to kill, or second, an intent to inflict serious bodily harm, or third, a wickedness of disposition, hardness of heart, cruelty, recklessness of consequence, and a mind regardless of social duty indicating an unjustified disregard for the probability of death or great bodily harm and an extreme indifference to the value of human life. A conscious disregard of an unjustified and extremely high risk that his action might cause death or serious bodily harm.” In New York, the equivalent of Pennsylvania’s third category of malice goes by the name, “depraved indifference” murder (that is, implied malice murder), which I’ve talked a little bit about before.  The parents face up to 40 years in prison if convicted of third degree murder.

In the report noted above, there seem to be two different defenses offered by the parents. But the defenses are conflated in the story in a way that makes it confusing to understand what seems to be the key issue with respect to the murder charge–the parents’ mens rea.

The first defense is that they “did not know their baby was sick enough to die.” This is a defense that sounds in ignorance. The idea is that if someone lacks sufficient education or background knowledge to form the requisite state of mind, he cannot be charged with a malicious intent. Though the parents may have been negligent in the ordinary tort law sense of the phrase, that negligence does not rise to the level of the sort of wanton, ‘don’t-give-a-damn’ recklessness that is necessary to sustain a charge of murder. One highly problematic factual issue with respect to the ignorance defense in this case seems to be that this has happened before. The story reports that four years ago, the parents’ two year-old child also died of bacterial pneumonia. Given this history, the defense of sheer ignorance becomes much less plausible, and the charge of wanton recklessness more plausible. If the defense is simply lack of knowledge, then there is a case to be made that when the very same disease afflicts a second child, it becomes more difficult to argue that the parents were not consciously disregarding a very high risk of death or serious bodily harm to the child in a way manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life.

But things might be different with respect to the second defense: that they believed and trusted that God would heal their child. Here the idea would be that notwithstanding what had happened in the past, they continued to believe that God would intervene to stop death. And the reason that they failed to report on the child’s condition to state authorities was not that they were unaware that the child’s condition was mortal, but that the power of God’s “cure” would be compromised if they reported. (Incidentally, some people have argued that exempting parents from the full arsenal of criminal liability will make it more likely that parents will fail to report. But I’d like to see the statistics supporting those claims: as a matter of intuition–I have not studied the matter–it’s not clear to me that the incidence of failure to report will increase unless the full range of criminal liability is brought to bear).

One might argue that the charge of third degree murder based on extreme indifference to the value of human life is equally applicable here. But I am not so sure. If the defense is accurate, then it seems to me that what the parents manifest is not indifference, but true (from their perspective) concern. There may be exceptional cases of course–parents who truly do desire the death of their children. But as a general matter, from the parents’ perspective, they are not consciously disregarding an unjustifiable risk in a way that manifested their extreme indifference to the value of human life. They were consciously doing what they believed was in the best interests of their child. When the defense is ignorance of the danger of a particular disease, though the defense might work in the case of the first child, that ignorance becomes much more difficult to claim in the case of a second child suffering from precisely the same medical condition as the first. But when the defense is belief in the power of faith healing, it does not seem to me that the same mens rea progression is at work. In fact, the parents may believe that the risk to their children is not great, but very small, just in virtue of their belief that though things may look bad, God will intervene. The fact that God did not intervene last time does not vitiate the chances that he will probably intervene this time.

In sum: (1) the faith healing defense seems to me stronger in this case than the defense of ignorance; (2) it does not seem to me that, if one accepts the faith-healing defense, the parents are in the same category as other people who act with wanton disregard for the value of human life; and (3) the truly tough question is whether these parents are different from other parents whose gross neglect results in their children’s death.

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