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CNN AMERICAN MORNING WITH PAULA ZAHN

Teen at Center of Legal Struggle Dies

Aired September 18, 2002 - 07:45   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: From the state of Tennessee this morning, a woman, who is charged with child abuse for allegedly choosing prayer over medical care to help treat her daughter's cancer, now might be looking at a homicide charge. The young girl, Jessica Crank, died earlier this week.
And from Knoxville this morning, Gary Tuchman has more on this story.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Jessica Crank died of cancer this past Sunday. She was 15 years old, and survived by her mother, who now faces the possibility of years in prison, because of a decision she made about her daughter.

The mother's attorney is Gregory Isaacs.

GREGORY ISAACS, MOTHER'S ATTORNEY: They tried to cure her through prayer, relying on their faith as practicing Christians.

TUCHMAN: "They" are Jessica's mother, Jacqueline, and her church, a fundamentalist church called the New Life Tabernacle, run by a man also charged with aggravated child abuse and neglect.

Jack Fine is the chief of the Tennessee police department that made the arrests before Jessica died:

JACK FINE, LENOIR CITY POLICE: And she got medical care only after the children were removed from her custody.

TUCHMAN: Jessica and a younger brother were put in the care of the Tennessee Department of Children Services seven weeks after their mother refused to listen to the advice of a doctor, who said Jessica should be brought to a hospital. As it turned out, Jessica had Ewing's Sarcoma and a 17-pound tumor on her shoulder.

(on camera): It's your department's feeling, though, that if she had medical treatment, she had a chance to survive this.

FINE: Based on what the professionals tell us, yes.

TUCHMAN (voice-over): Jacqueline Crank is out on bond, as is the church's leader, Ariel Ben Sherman. They remain together with other congregants in the church building in rural Loudon County, Tennessee.

The minister's lawyer says his client should not have been arrested.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Whether he influenced her or not is not a question. Whether an individual tells somebody that they should believe one way or another isn't a crime.

TUCHMAN: The mother's lawyer also says his client should not have been arrested, but for a different reason.

ISAACS: Specifically, she has relied on her rights as a parent and her rights as a citizen and exercised her rights of religious freedom.

TUCHMAN: But prosecutors say the defendants were negligent, and with Jessica's death, they are considering adding charges under the homicide statute.

Jacqueline Crank has a court hearing scheduled for next month. For now, she and her son remain at the church.

ISAACS: I think that now, in light of all of the tragedy, in light of all of the grief that the core belief that they relied on is still there.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TUCHMAN: About three hours from now, the funeral will be held for Jessica Crank here in Loudon County, Tennessee. Attending the funeral, her mother, her minister and members of the congregation; a congregation prosecutors bluntly call, "a cult."

Bill -- back to you.

HEMMER: Gary, some medical experts have already said that this young girl would have died anyway, despite the care she would have received either at home or in a hospital. Will that have much significance legally on this case?

TUCHMAN: Ultimately, it could have significance with the jury. However, prosecutors are saying they don't know for sure if she could have survived. They are saying either way, this woman and the minister were negligent.

HEMMER: Thank you, Gary -- Gary Tuchman live in Knoxville, Tennessee this morning.

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