An Alberta mother and father who treated their ill son with herbal remedies rather than get him medical attention have been acquitted in the boy’s death.
The courtroom in Lethbridge, Alta., erupted into cheers when a judge ruled Thursday that David and Collet Stephan were not guilty of failing to provide the necessaries of life to 18-month-old Ezekiel, who died in 2012.
The medical examiner who did the autopsy testified that Ezekiel died of bacterial meningitis, but a pathologist called by the defence said the child died from a lack of oxygen to the brain when he was in an ambulance.
Queen’s Bench Justice Terry Clackson spoke for only four minutes before telling the parents to stand.
“The Stephans did not know Ezekiel had meningitis but were alert to the possibility and monitoring the symptoms,” Clackson said before releasing a full written decision. “The meningitis Ezekiel had was viral and he did not die from meningitis but from a lack of oxygen.”
Collet Stephan cried as she hugged her husband. Outside court, she gave him a kiss before he spoke to reporters.
“It was an emotional roller-coaster. We didn’t know what to expect today,” David Stephan said. “It is the right decision.
“And it is shocking because it has been seven years of our lives fighting this, so it has become part of our identity. It is just a beautiful thought that we can move on with our lives.”
It was the second trial for the Stephans, who were found guilty by a jury in 2016. The Supreme Court of Canada set aside the conviction and ordered a new trial.
David Stephan said the verdict has renewed his faith in the legal system and reaffirms protection of parental rights.
Stephan, who represented himself in the second trial, said he will seek legal costs, which he earlier estimated at $1.2 million.
“For those watching the trial, the evidence simply wasn’t there,” said defence lawyer Shawn Buckley, who represented the couple in the first trial and Collet Stephan in the second trial.
LISTEN: Prof. Tim Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in Health Law & Research Director, Health Law Institute, University of Alberta joins the Ryan Jespersen Show
The province’s Crown prosecution service said in an emailed statement that it’s reviewing the judge’s decision to determine if it will appeal.
In his ruling, the judge said that there was no physical evidence that the toddler died of meningitis and that the Crown had therefore failed to prove its case.
WATCH: Closing arguments in David and Collet Stephan’s retrial wrapped up Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019 with the defence and Crown delivering their final submissions. Jasmine Bala has more.
Clackson said that Ezekiel was indeed sick, but the law does not impose a duty to seek medical attention for every sick child.
“The child had been sick, had improved, then regressed and was waxing and waning. They were watching him closely for signs of meningitis, just in case, even though he did not appear to have any of the symptoms,” Clackson wrote.
“I have concluded that the Stephans knew what meningitis was, knew that bacterial meningitis could be very serious, knew what symptoms to look for … They thought their son had some sort of croup or flu-like viral infection.”
Stephan’s father co-founded Truehope Nutritional Support in Raymond, Alta., in 1996 to find a natural treatment for bipolar disorder after his wife took her life.
During the trial, the Stephans testified that they initially thought Ezekiel had croup, an upper airway infection. They treated him at their home with natural remedies, including a smoothie made with garlic, onion and horseradish.
The parents said the boy appeared to be recovering at times and they saw no reason to take him to hospital, despite his having a fever and lacking energy.
They did call an ambulance when the child stopped breathing. He was put on life support in hospital and died a few days later.
David Stephan argued it was a failure by medical professionals to properly intubate his son that led to his death. Testimony indicated the boy was without oxygen for nearly nine minutes because the ambulance that took him to hospital wasn’t properly stocked with breathing equipment to fit a child.
“The physical evidence supports … (the) conclusion that Ezekiel died because he was deprived of oxygen. That occurred because he stopped breathing and the resulting oxygen deprivation lasted long enough to lead to his death,” Clackson wrote.
The judge added that the Crown did not prove that medical attention would have saved the boy’s life.
The Alberta Crown Prosecution Service issued the following statement to Global News:
“We respect the decision of the court. This has been a challenging case for everyone involved. The Alberta Crown Prosecution Service will review the decision to determine next steps. As such, no further comment will be provided.”
Timeline of the case
Aug. 20, 2010: Ezekiel Stephan is born at home with the help of birthing assistant Terry Meynders, who is also a registered nurse.
Feb. 27, 2012: Ezekiel takes ill at the family home in Glenwood, Alta. His mother would describe him at trial as having a cold, stuffy nose and trouble breathing.
Feb. 28-March 5, 2012: The parents treat Ezekiel for what they believe to be an upper airway infection that leads to a barking cough. They add tinctures with garlic, hot peppers and horseradish to some of his smoothies. They also attempt to help his breathing with cool air and a humidifier.
March 5, 2012: Ezekiel seems to improve. His father later testifies that the boy is not 100 per cent, but no longer has any difficulty breathing and is able to go to preschool. He plays with his toys and eats some solid food.
March 6, 2012: Ezekiel is “unusually lethargic,” lies in bed the entire day and his only response is to moan unhappily. He doesn’t eat or drink and is exhibiting unusual neurological symptoms.
March 7, 2012: Ezekiel seems to improve again. His abnormal movements stop and he can watch TV, but still isn’t playing normally.
March 8-10, 2012: Ezekiel’s parents note that he seems to be gradually improving. He regains a bit of his appetite, but is not active or playful.
March 11, 2012: Ezekiel’s symptoms worsen again. He refuses to eat or drink and is lethargic. His parents notice his body is very stiff.
March 12, 2012: Ezekiel’s body remains stiff. He is getting fluids through an eyedropper because he will not drink on his own. Meynders comes to the home and suggests he might have viral meningitis. She tells Collet Stephan she should take the boy to a doctor.
March 13, 2012: The Stephans head to Lethbridge, Alta., to pick up an echinacea mixture from a naturopath. At home that evening, the boy stops breathing on a couple of occasions before his parents leave home to meet an ambulance. The breathing equipment in the ambulance is too large for a small child and he is without oxygen for nearly nine minutes. Ezekiel is taken to two area hospitals before he is transported to Calgary by air.
March 14, 2012: Ezekiel arrives at Alberta Children’s Hospital in Calgary, where doctors tell the parents the boy is showing little brain activity and the prognosis is bleak. He is put on life support.
March 16, 2012: Ezekiel dies.
Feb. 14, 2013: The Stephans are charged with failing to provide the necessaries of life.
April 27, 2016: A jury finds both parents guilty.
June 24, 2016: David Stephan is sentenced to four months in jail and his wife to three months of house arrest. They say they will appeal.
Nov. 17, 2017: The Alberta Court of Appeal upholds the convictions but, because the ruling wasn’t unanimous, the Stephans have an automatic right to take their case to the Supreme Court of Canada.
May 15, 2018: The Supreme Court quashes the convictions and orders a new trial.
June 3, 2019: The second trial begins in Lethbridge, Alta., this time before a judge alone. Originally scheduled to last four weeks, it stretches out over three months.
Sept. 19, 2019: Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Terry Clackson is scheduled to hand down his verdict.
— With files from Global News