The guilt or innocence of an Alberta couple accused of culpability in the meningitis death of their toddler is now in the hands of a jury.
David Stephan, 32, and Collet Stephan, 35, are charged with failing to provide the necessaries of life to nearly 19-month-old Ezekiel in March 2012.
The couple testified they believed that Ezekiel was suffering from croup or flu, so they treated him with remedies that included hot peppers, garlic, onions and horseradish over 2 1/2 weeks before he stopped breathing and was rushed to a nearby hospital.
The boy was then taken to the Alberta Children’s Hospital in Calgary where doctors detected little brain activity and he died a couple of days later.
The defence argues the couple were loving, responsible parents who simply didn’t realize how sick the little boy was. The Crown says they didn’t do enough to ensure Ezekiel received the medical treatment he required, noting they had been warned by a friend who was a registered nurse that the boy likely had meningitis.
The case has drawn international attention, due in part because of the societal divide between those who do and don’t believe in the natural medicine movement.
A website called “Stand 4 Truth” has been providing daily updates on the trial and comes with a link allowing people to donate to a fund for the couple.
“In the event of a guilty verdict, the Stephans’ children will likely be separated from them for up to five years,” said one recent post.
“They will have permanent criminal records and will likely never have the opportunity to provide adequately for their family when they do get out of prison.”
David Stephan declined comment Monday, but he told The Canadian Press in an interview before the trial that he believed he and his wife were charged because they didn’t vaccinate their children and, in part, because his family helped start a nutritional supplements company.
His father, Anthony Stephan, co-founded Truehope Nutritional Support in Raymond, Alta., in 1996 after his wife committed suicide.
The company’s website says the woman and some of the couple’s 10 children had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, so Anthony Stephan formed the company with a friend to find a natural treatment.
The company says one of their products, EMPowerplus, helps treat bipolar disorder, depression and even autism.
Truehope fought to be able to sell EMPowerplus for more than a decade before an Alberta judge ruled that it could be sold here as a drug. It’s now shipped to more than 100 countries.
David Stephan, a Truehope vice-president, said he heard so many stories from parents about vaccinations causing autism in their children that he and his wife decided they wouldn’t vaccinate their own kids.
He said that still held true for their three remaining boys — eight-year-old Ezra, three-year-old Ephraim and one-year-old Enoch.
“We’re actually more adamant than we ever were,” he said in the pre-trial interview, adding they are a typical, loving family — not criminals.
“If everybody could see it from exactly how we saw it, they would have a full understanding and be like, ‘Oh wow, you were basically blindsided and didn’t understand what was really going on.’ ”
Justice Rodney Jerke spent two hours Monday in his charge to the jury, cautioning the four men and eight women that they had to be convinced beyond a “reasonable doubt” to find the couple guilty.
“You must not make your decisions based on sympathy, prejudice or fear,” said Jerke. “You are the judges of the facts. You must not use your own ideas about what the law should be.”
As has been over the course of the six-week trial, the courtroom was full on Monday. More than 60 supporters filed in, many with crying children in tow, and sat behind the Stephans. Several gave Collet Stephan a hug during the break.
It was clear how emotional the issue was for many. Collet Stephan cried through much of her testimony and was joined in her grief by some supporters and at least two members of the jury who cried along with her.
Several times the couple’s supporters laughed at some of the questions from the prosecution or at answers from Crown witnesses. Jerke sent out the jury after some particularly loud outbursts and lectured spectators to maintain a sense of decorum, saying their disruptions were a distraction to both the lawyers and the jury.
The jurors will be sequestered until a verdict is reached.
The maximum penalty for failing to provide the necessaries of life is five years in prison.