LANE COUNTY, Ore. (KMTR) - A couple charged with manslaughter in the death of their 16-year old, Austin Sprout, were sentenced Tuesday in court.
Brandi and Russel Bellew, from the Creswell area, are members of the "General Assembly and Church of the Firstborn," a congregation in Pleasant Hill that relies mostly on faith healing.
Faith healing is a practice where individuals pray and comfort for an ill person rather than seeking medical aid.
Sprout was described as an active and healthy teenager who loved to play sports. In December 2011, he came down with what his parents believed to be a cold. He continued to play basketball, but soon could not walk or talk. He died days later.
Investigators in the case said that Sprout's condition was "highly preventable." An autopsy showed that he had gotten an infection as a result of a burst appendix.
"We felt from the beginning that it was a case of medical neglect," explained Assistant District Attorney Erik Hasselman.
Community members in Creswell and parish members of the same denomination of the Bellews wrote letters to the court supporting the Bellews and their parenting skills. Teachers of the remaining children praised them, too, describing the children as well-behaved and ambitious.
Because of the high level of cooperation in prior proceedings and continuous communication with DHS as requested, Tuesday's hearing for the Bellews went quickly.
Brandi and Russel Bellew both plead guilty to less severe charges of criminally negligent homicide. They were sentenced to five years of probation as long as they continue to cooperate and check in with the Department of Human Services and promise to seek medical assistance for their remaining six children as necessary. After already spending time in jail and months of electronic monitoring, prosecutors felt it wasn't necessary to sentence them to more jail time, especially with as few beds as Lane County has to offer.
After the hearing, the Bellews hugged each other and left together. Until Tuesday's hearing, they had been separated per request of the Lane County court.
Hasselman told NewsSource a big part of their work in prosecuting was referencing prior incidents like this one. One of the more notable faith healing cases happened just recently in Clackamas County. According to Hasselman, the congregation in Clackamas County has resisted Oregon law to abide by their religious faith.
"This was a congregation that responded in a much different way than the congregation up North," he explained. "They were very receptive to whatever they needed to do to essentially learn from this, and be educated on what the state's expectations were."
Hasselman said it was the education in this case that proved the prosecution successful.
"It's tragic that this young man died under these circumstances but we're certainly hoping given this resolution, the education piece, that we've done with this congregation, that this is unlikely to ever happen again," said Hasselman.
He added that if a minor dies under the belief of faith healing, manslaughter charges will follow through and severe consequences will follow. Oregon law was recently amended to this matter, not allowing legal exemption due to religious beliefs.
Hasselman wrote and sent a letter to the congregation, too, saying in part, "There is no exception for the failure to provide medical attention or care to children because of religious beliefs." It also said, "While religious beliefs are protected by law, a person's action or inaction based on those beliefs is not always protected." At the end of the letter, there was a list of emergency phone numbers.
In all, Lane County hopes this faith healing case sets the tone for the future.
The Bellews, along with their attorneys and other parishioners of the church, declined to comment.