A mother and father in Okanogan County were acquitted of murder after they summoned their church elders instead of a doctor when their son was dying of appendicitis. Lois and Peter Griffin would not approve.
In March of 2009, Greg and JaLea Swezey saw their 17-year-old son Zachery fall ill. He was bedridden for days with a fever, diarrhea, and vomiting.
Most rational people would head to the hospital in that situation, but the Swezeys are the textbook definition irrational. They are members of the Church of the Firstborn, and believe in "faith healing" -- praying to a higher power to cure sickness, rather than relying on the scientifically-proven power of modern medicine.
The family summoned church elders from Olympia and Spokane who anointed the ailing teenager's body with olive oil and prayed over him. But -- surprise, surprise -- this was no substitute for a good old fashioned appendectomy, a relatively safe and simple procedure that has reduced the mortality rate for appendicitis to less than 2 per 1,000,000 cases. Zachery, a high school junior who played basketball, wrestled, and participated in band and choir, died with his parents sitting at his bedside.
Zachery Swezey in his high school yearbook photo.
After a lengthy police investigation, Greg, 48, and JaLea, 46, were eventually charged with second-degree murder, first- and second-degree manslaughter. They claimed that they gave Zachery the option of going to the hospital and he declined. They also said they believed he merely had the flu, which is at least plausible considering the symptoms, and the fact that the bug had been going around in the family. Greg admitted, however, to Okanogan County Sheriff's detectives that he "figured out pretty much" that his son would die 10 to 15 minutes before it happened, and yet he still did not consider calling an ambulance. (Reached by phone yesterday, the Swezeys declined to comment for this story.)
On Monday, after a three-day trial and nine hours of deliberation, a jury acquitted the Swezeys of the second-degree murder charges. JaLea was also acquitted of first-degree manslaughter. The jury could not reach verdicts on Greg's first-degree manslaughter charge, or the second-degree manslaughter charges. Prosecutors can choose to retry them on the hung jury charges, and the decision will likely be announced at a June 4 court hearing.
Little reliable information about the Church of the Firstborn is available online, and Okanogan County Prosecutor Karl Sloan says the origins and beliefs of the church were not discussed in detail during the trial. Charging documents quote Swezey family members as saying the church is non-denominational. One website devoted to researching cults has documented several of cases where children from Church of the Firstborn families died when "faith-healing" failed to actually heal.
Of course, refusing medical care for religious beliefs is nothing new. Christian Scientists are infamous for "faith-healing," so much so that an entire episode of Family Guy was devoted to the subject. (Says Peter Griffin: "Christian Science? Is that--Is that that thing all them gaybo Hollywood actors do to keep their stuff away from other guys' butts?")
On the show, Stewie befriends a boy named Scott who turns out to have cancer. His Christian Scientist parents refuse to take him to a doctor, so Peter and Lois decide to kidnap the kid and get him to a hospital. Hijinks ensue, and, in the end, Lois convinces the sick kid's parents that God is ultimately responsible for modern medicine. Scott gets cured, and everyone all live happily ever after.
Too bad it doesn't always work that way in real life.