A Marathon County judge has rejected an argument that the trial attorneys who represented the Weston prayer death parents were ineffective.
Judge Vincent Howard refused to grant Dale and Leilani Neumann a new trial. The parents will likely challenge the ruling to the Third District Court of Appeals.
Jurors separately convicted the Neumanns in 2009 of reckless homicide for failing to seek medical help for their 11-year-old daughter Madeline Kara as she died from a treatable case of diabetes on Easter Sunday 2008.
Attorneys on both sides had already agreed to appeal Howard’s decision refusing to dismiss the charges based on a faith healing defense. He did not address it in his 16-page ruling.
But Howard ruled that trial attorneys Gene Linehan and Jay Kronenwetter were not ineffective for failing to challenge a religious instruction given to jurors or for failing to ask for a specific theory of defense instruction.
The religious instruction told jurors that the Neumanns’ still had a legal duty to seek medical help for their daughter despite their belief in prayer. Howard cited a a U.S. Supreme Court ruling which said,” We have never held that an individual’s religious beliefs excuse him from compliance with an otherwise valid law prohibiting conduct that the state is free to regulate.”
And Howard said the standard instruction for second-degree reckless homicide covered the legal grounds that attorneys wanted to address in the theory of defense instruction. The standard instruction forced jurors to identify whether the “defendant was aware that his/her conduct created the unreasonable and substantial risk of death or great bodily harm.”
Howard denied Leilani a new trial in the interests of justice, writing that the “sincere belief” defense was placed before the jury though “it was not simply placed therein the manner that Leilani wishes it had been.”
Linehan, who represented Leilani at trial, suffered from heart, breathing and back problems. Howard recognized that but said “those continuing conditions…did not result in any obvious reduced medical ability or legal acumen on Linehan’s part.”
Howard even wrote that Linehan made a quick strategic decision to de-emphasize the sincere religious belief defense during his closing argument – though he did discuss it – and instead challenge prosecutors’ claims that Leilani was a “religious extremist.”
“Trial counsel certainly could have better explained and emphasized the ‘sincere belief’ defense and how it related to subjective awareness element,” Howard wrote. “But ‘room for improvement’ is not the same as deficient performance.”
Dale stood trial about a month-and-a-half after his wife. Attorneys made a decision to inform the jury in his case about Leilani’s conviction to prevent some of the jurors in his pool from knowing about it while others did not. Howard said the decision to inform the jury was unusual but necessary given Dale’s decision to have a Marathon County jury and a speedy trial.
“Given all of those factors, the trial court faced not a smooth sea and fair winds but rather a perfect storm that would make it more difficult to keep upright the good ship ‘Fair Trial’ upon a sea of impartial jurors,” Howard wrote.