Appeal Court Upholds Parents’ Conviction in Son’s Meningitis Death

Written on Behalf of Affleck & Barrison LLP

A panel of Appeal Court judges in Alberta dismissed the appeal of a couple who were found guilty of failing to provide the necessaries of life to their 19 month old son, who died of meningitis in 2012.

WHAT HAPPENED?

In 2016, David and Collet Stephan were convicted by a jury for failing to provide the necessaries of life in their son Ezekiel’s 2012 death. They had treated their son with natural remedies rather than taking him to a doctor when he had become ill.

A panel of Appeal Court judges in Alberta dismissed the appeal. Justice Bruce McDonald, writing for the majority, wrote,

This evidence supports the conclusion that they actively failed to do what a reasonably prudent and ordinary parent would do.

During the trial, jurors heard evidence that the Stephans used natural remedies and homemade smoothies containing hot pepper, ginger root, horseradish and onion rather than seek medical care. Ezekiel became too stiff to sit in his car seat and had to lie on a mattress when his father drove him from his home to a naturopathic clinic to pick up additional herbal supplements.

The Stephans did not call for medical assistance until their son stopped breathing. He was then rushed to a local hospital, but died after being transported by air ambulance to a Children’s Hospital in Calgary.

THE TRIAL AND APPEAL

According to the Stephans’ lawyers, the trial was a “battle of experts”. The Stephans argued that the convictions should be overturned because the trial judge erred in allowing too many Crown experts to testify, the medical jargon confused jurors, and the defence expert’s testimony was restricted. The majority of the Appeal Court dismissed all grounds of appeal.

The Stephans’ lawyers also argued that their clients’ Charter rights had been violated because of the unreasonable delay between the time they were charged to the date they were convicted. This aspect of the appeal was also dismissed with the Court finding the delay was not unreasonable.

DISSENTING OPINION ON APPEAL

Justice Brian O’Ferrall wrote a dissenting opinion in favour of a new trial. He felt that the trial judge’s charge to the jury was confusing and misleading. Justice O’Ferrall did, however, agree with the majority of the Court in finding that the Stephans’ right to be tried within a reasonable time had not been infringed.

SENTENCING

David Stephan was sentenced to four months in jail and his wife, Collet, was sentenced to three months of house arrest. They were both ordered to complete 240 hours of community service. The trial Judge also ordered that the Stephans’ three other children see a medical doctor at least once a year.

WHAT COMES NEXT?

Given that one of the three judges on the appeal panel dissented, the Stephans have an automatic right to have the Supreme Court of Canada hear arguments in their case. The Supreme Court has set a tentative date to hear arguments on May 15, 2018 for the couple.

The Crown prosecutors have filed their own appeal where they will argue that the couple should face stiffer sentences before another panel of Court of Appeal judges. A date for these arguments has not yet been set.

NECESSARIES OF LIFE

The Criminal Code of Canada requires that every parent, foster parent, or guardian is required to provide necessaries of life for a child under the age of 16 years of age.

A parent is responsible for the care, supervision, maintenance and support of his/her children. At a minimum, this obligation entails the provision of food and shelter. The Courts have also found that the failure to seek medical attention can be categorized as a “failure to provide the necessaries of life”.

The prosecution, in a case such as the Stephans, is required to prove that:

  1. The accused was under a legal duty to provide the necessaries of life to a child under the age of 16 years;
  2. The accused failed to provide the necessaries of life to a child under the age of 16 years;
  3. This failure endangered the child’s life or was likely to cause the health of that child to be endangered permanently; and,
  4. The conduct of the accused represented a marked departure from the conduct of a reasonable parent, foster parent, or guardian in the same circumstances.

We will continue to follow the developments in this case and will provide updates on this blog as they become available.

In the meantime, if you are facing charges or have questions regarding your legal rights, please contact the experienced criminal lawyers at Affleck & Barrison LLP online or at 905-404-1947. For your convenience, we offer 24-hour phone services. We are available when you need us most.