In today’s Star Ledger, there was an article about a woman who was charged with her son’s death because instead of giving him antibiotics, felt that prayer alone would heal. While I find her decision troublesome, I also question whether there is legal basis to convict someone for murder out of negligence due to religious conviction. This also goes to show that just because one assumes prayer to be the true mode for healing does not mean one should neglect using the physical discoveries of modern medicine as the conduit to health.
When Kay Burdette’s 17-year-old son became sick with flu-like symptoms, the faithful mother chose the same prescription she has used for years: prayer.
This time, though, her son Jesse did not recover and Burdette was charged with manslaughter. She pleaded guilty to lesser charges and avoided prison, in part because authorities lost a tissue sample that was crucial to proving that her son died of bacterial pneumonia, which is treatable, rather than viral pneumonia, which generally isn’t.
Pale, coughing and weighing only 130 pounds at the end, Jesse died in his mother’s bed the night of March 19, 2008. His mom called a friend from their charismatic, non-denominational church, then her daughter. She never called 911 nor sought medical assistance.
“Because of my religious beliefs I trust in God to forgive my sins and for physical healing,” she told investigators. “We’re not discouraged … from seeking medical help, but I chose to totally trust God for Jesse’s healing. Jesse and I both prayed for his healing.”
Burdette had used prayer as an antidote since Jesse was little. Once, he bumped his head on a hearth and Burdette asked a fellow church member to pray for him. Soon, he was acting like nothing ever happened…There were other problems, too. An investigator had been deployed to Iraq and couldn’t testify, and a conviction of a devout Christian mother would be difficult to win in the Bible Belt…“My reason for not giving my son medical treatment was because of his and my conviction of trusting God for healing,” Burdette wrote to the judge. “I loved my son dearly and his loss has brought great pain and grief to my heart.”
Jesse’s father was angry over what happened.
“His death was tragic, but I also hated the fact that his body was cut up …,” David Burdette, Kay Burdette’s ex-husband, wrote to prosecutors. “Now part of the evidence that came from that autopsy has mysteriously vanished. … It is pathetic!”
Problems are not new in the forensic department, which has long battled staffing and budget shortages. In 2004, a forensic pathologist resigned, leaving hundreds of unfinished reports. One of those resulted in a judge refusing to admit an autopsy report in a capital murder case. The defendant ended up being convicted of a lesser charge of murder, which does not carry a death sentence.
Forensics officials did not return emails seeking comment about the Burdette case. Kay Burdette also declined to comment through an attorney.
David Burdette said before Jesse was born, he and his wife visited Sandhill Bible Church, located in the country a few miles from Auburn University. The church seemed fine at first, but he left after about a year because the pastor was too controlling and the members too self-righteous, he said.
The church taught that members should rely solely on prayers, not medicine, for healing, he said, but Kay Burdette and other church members denied that claim to investigators.
David Burdette described himself as a Christian and said he has no doubt that God miraculously heals people.
“I’ve seen it happen. But God also uses the medical community for healing,” he said.
David Burdette grew distant from his family, divorcing his wife in 2000. He learned of Jesse’s death only after Kay Burdette’s mother called his mother with the news. He went to the funeral home and saw his son in the casket.
“It was the first time I’d seen him since 1994,” he said…