The Supreme Court of Canada has ordered a new trial for an Alberta couple whose toddler died of meningitis after they opted to treat him with naturopathic potions and supplements instead of seeking prompt medical help.
The top court ruled that the trial judge erred in his instructions to the jury at the close of the trial of David and Collet Stephan, who were convicted in 2016 of failing to provide the necessaries of life in the death of their son Ezekiel.
Speaking for the seven-member panel, Justice Michael Moldaver said the judge in the initial trial failed to properly explain the law “in a way that the jury could understand,” and that merited a retrial.
He did not specifically address the arguments of the Stephans’ lawyer that the Crown had presented an “overwhelming” amount of medical evidence to the jury, much of which was irrelevant.
David Stephan was sentenced to four months in jail, although he was freed on bail after serving 20 days, and his wife, Collett, was ordered to spend three months under house arrest – the only exceptions being trips to church and medical appointments.
Those convictions were quashed and Mr. Stephan said outside court they feel vindicated.
“We’re grateful because this is a move in the right direction and we now have the opportunity to bring the whole truth forward,” he said. “We’re just so excited to have the ability to do that and to be able to uphold parental rights here in Canada.”
However, the pair were ordered to stand trial again, which could result in conviction or acquittal.
While the defence had appealed the convictions, the Crown had also launched an appeal, arguing that the sentences were far too lenient. The maximum sentence for failing to provide the necessaries of life is five years in prison.
Ezekiel initially fell ill on Feb. 27, 2012, at the family home in Glenwood, Alta. He died March 16 after being airlifted to Alberta Children’s Hospital in Calgary. It is what happened in between that is at issue.
The Stephans treated the boy with a variety of natural remedies such as olive leaf extract, garlic, hot peppers and horseradish. They also consulted a nurse, who, on March 12, suggested the boy might have meningitis and recommended he see a doctor.
It is the parents’ actions (or inaction) that are at the heart of the legal case. At that point, Ezekiel was lethargic and so stiff that he could not sit in a car seat. (Stiffness is a classic symptom of meningitis, a life-threatening condition.)
Instead of getting medical help, the Stephans consulted a naturopath and purchased an echinacea mixture. It was not until the next day, when the toddler stopped breathing, that they called an ambulance. The Stephans argued during their trial that the reason the boy died was because the ambulance did not have proper pediatric equipment to help Ezekiel.
The legal saga has been a long one. Ezekiel died in 2012; the Stephans were charged more than a year later and the trial did not occur until 2016. Last year, the Alberta Court of Appeal upheld the convictions but, because one of the three judges felt the couple should be granted a new trial, the couple had automatic leave to ask the Supreme Court to hear arguments.
Through the ordeal, Mr. Stephan has insisted that the case is fundamentally about parental rights − that parents have the final say on what care is appropriate for their children.
He and his supporters have also contended that the couple is being persecuted for their vocal anti-vaccination views and as retaliation for years-long legal battles with regulators. The Stephan family founded Truehope, a controversial maker of nutritional supplements. Health Canada has issued warnings about the use of one of its supplements.
Mr. Stephan has been unrepentant, and raised the ire of many by continuing on the speaking circuit, promoting his views on “wellness.”
In a Facebook post published after the Supreme Court ruling, Mr. Stephan wrote: ”Justice over the errors of our conviction has finally been served, our convictions have been overturned and we now have the opportunity to go back to trial. Even though the idea of enduring 4+ weeks of court is deeply uncomfortable for us, we take comfort in knowing that aside from the medical evidence that is still withheld or destroyed, the whole truth will be established and the tremendous lies surrounding the passing of our son will be exposed.”
With files from The Canadian Press.