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Faith Healing Death

Aired August 29, 2003 - 20:06   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: A Milwaukee minister is barred from performing exorcisms after an 8-year-old autistic boy died during a faith-healing prayer service.
Church members say Ray Hemphill tried to exorcise demons from the boy at a prayer session last Friday. The Milwaukee's coroner has ruled the death as a homicide. But Hemphill faces felony child abuse charges. Who was this little boy? Who is to blame for untimely death?


O'BRIEN (voice-over): This is Terrance Cottrell Jr., an 8-year- old boy about to start third grade. Diagnosed as autistic at age 2, Terrance was not an easy child. Like many autistic children, he acted out. But in his church, some thought he was possessed by the devil.

It was in this small church, led by a self-proclaimed minister, that they took matters into their own hands. According to police, in what's been described as a two-hour prayer service, the young boy was held down in sweat-drenched sheets by church members and his own mother. Terrance died of suffocation.

TERRANCE COTTRELL SR., FATHER OF TERRANCE: They convinced her into wrapping him up, holding him down, and trying to exorcise the demon out of him.

O'BRIEN: Terrance's father and a community now mourn. Tributes have grown outside the young boy's house. The pastor who led the prayer service has been charged with felony child abuse.

Many question how a prayer session could become deadly and how the man who people say is responsible for murder could only face five years in prison. But the only answer they have now is that the young life of a disabled boy was cut tragically short.


O'BRIEN: Milwaukee prosecutors are defending their decision to seek only child abuse charges against Terrance Cottrell's pastor. They say it would be difficult to prove that the minister knowingly engaged in actions that resulted in the boy's death. But some legal experts say the case is a clear example of a government judicial system that is reluctant to prosecute religious matters.

Joining us to weigh in on the case, Milwaukee County district attorney Michael McCann; also, Wendy Murphy. She's a former Boston prosecutor and she's now a trial attorney who focuses on crime victims rights.

Good evening. Welcome to both of you. Thanks for joining us.

WENDY MURPHY, ATTORNEY: Good evening, Soledad.


O'BRIEN: Mr. McCann, let's begin with you.

The medical examiner has ruled the case a homicide. And yet you're charging the preacher in this case with felony child abuse. Why not charge him with murder?

MCCANN: Because murder is an intentional slaying.

The homicide decision was simply that it died by the hand of another person. That doesn't say whether it's a felony or not. It's simply a homicide, death by another person. We carefully sifted the evidence in this case. Some 80 years of experience I and two of my very experienced assistants assessed what we have. You understand, this was a small gathering present. You don't know whether anyone is cooperating with us in the investigation.

We're working with the medical examiner. Our statute requires us to show that the individual involved, to make it a homicide, a reckless homicide, that the individual knew that it was an act of very substantial risk, of death or great bodily harm, and not just objectively, but that he personally believed that. Now, the mother was present when this happened. There's every reason to believe that the mother loves the child. Typically, in a reckless case, you have got some ill will involved, someone shooting at someone.

O'BRIEN: But you can certainly understand why some people would say this charge does not go far enough.

Wendy, I'm curious to know, as a former prosecutor, would another charge that's stronger than a child abuse charge get around the intent issue that we just heard from the district attorney?

MURPHY: Well, to me, this is very close, even, to a second- degree murder charge, because, although most of the time we require specific intent, as Mr. McCann suggested, in fact, when people die, we bump it down a little bit, because we care that much about human life.

You can actually prove second-degree murder in Wisconsin and in most states by showing a conscious disregard for a serious risk to human life. And, frankly, I think, when a child dies in a case like this, with adults around, it's very, very likely a jury might struggle, but would come back with a verdict of guilty. But to suggest that it's not even a manslaughter charge, that a kind of recklessness verdict wouldn't likely occur, I completely disagree with that.

And, frankly, that is exactly the kind of decision that should be rendered by a jury, because the message that's sent if you just go forward with child abuse, it's as if the child never died. The message you send is that the going rate for the death of an autistic black child in Wisconsin is no more than five years behind bars? That's uncivilized.

O'BRIEN: Mr. McCann, there is evidence that the pastor, in fact, kneeled on the little boy's chest, the pastor weighing in excess, I believe, of 150 pounds, for up to two hours.

And I am wondering, doesn't this meet the conscious disregard level that we just heard Wendy talk about? Shouldn't he understand that a large man kneeling on a little boy's chest for two hours, that is going to cause serious harm, if not kill the child, even if his intent is not to kill him?

MCCANN: First, there is no evidence he kneeled on him for two hours. There's evidence that he laid across him for an hour, or the better part of that.

Ms. Murphy doesn't know the law in our state. We don't have a crime we call murder and we don't have a crime we call manslaughter. She doesn't know the facts of the case. She is shooting from the hip. She's a prosecutor. And you have to go through all the facts of the case.


MURPHY: I read the law in your case.


MCCANN: There is no manslaughter.


O'BRIEN: Please, if you talk over each other, then no one can hear what either of you are saying. So, please, finish up your thought, Mr. McCann.

And then, Wendy, I'm going to let you answer what he says.


We have no manslaughter into this state. We have no second- degree murder. I'm thoroughly familiar with the statutes. I've been a prosecutor for almost 40 years. And I'm thoroughly familiar with the evidence. Ms. Murphy doesn't know the evidence, doesn't know if anyone who was present is cooperating with us or not, or whether all present are saying, no, that it wasn't dangerous.

Ms. Murphy doesn't know that, can't possibly criticize it. And it's really an attempt to apparently get some sensational time on the air, because we looked at this case. I care about developmentally disabled children.


O'BRIEN: Wendy, let's answer what he is essentially relatively serious charges to you.


There's no question in my mind that second-degree murder is a valid case. And if second-degree murder is valid in Wisconsin, then certainly a manslaughter-like charge is. And they don't call it manslaughter in Wisconsin. He's right. They call it reckless homicide. But I'll read right from a decision, Wisconsin vs. Spears (ph). It is a binding case of the Supreme Court in Wisconsin.

And it says: "Any conduct causing death, where there is utter lack of concern for the life of another," that is second-degree murder, sir. You are an elected official. You are responsible to the public to prosecute the highest degree of crime that is responsibly available to you to charge. This is a vulnerable child who could not protect himself. You owe to it your constituents to explain to them how a child could die and you call it child abuse? It's like ignoring his death.


MCCANN: This is from a lawyer that hasn't -- this lawyer hasn't read the facts at all. It's one of these people that get on TV and don't know what they're talking about.

I've been at this business for 40 years. I know what I'm doing.


MCCANN: For quite a capable prosecutor, at that.

O'BRIEN: Sir, are you saying, then, that the case that Wendy just read to us, the decision from the Supreme Court, she made that up? That does not exist? How do you explain that?

MCCANN: No, it's an older case. And the same statute -- the statute has changed. And I know what the facts are. She has not read the case file. She doesn't know what the facts are.

MURPHY: It's still good law.


MCCANN: She doesn't know what others that are present are saying. She doesn't know what other people there are saying.

We have to show that the man consciously knew that this could cause death or great probability of death. That's the assessment. That's what in her mind.

MURPHY: That's up to a jury to decide.


MCCANN: That's in her mind. And, as a prosecutor, you assess the facts and make the decision on what is the proper charge. You don't do something because it's politically popular or not.


O'BRIEN: I'm curious to know -- you mentioned the mother was there. Did you consider at all filing any kind of charges against the mother?

MCCANN: Absolutely. We haven't made final decisions.

But you have to understand, in a small church with a small people there, you don't know what the witnesses are saying. You can't possibly assess the weight of the evidence.


O'BRIEN: Wendy, unfortunately, we're out of time. And I have a feeling that the debate on this issue is going to continue. So we're going to hold off for now, because we're out of time.

And I do want to thank you both for a lively debate on this, Michael McCann and also Wendy Murphy. Thanks for your time this evening.

MURPHY: Thank you.


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