An Alberta judge has sentenced a naturopath, anti-vaccine couple to probation and jail time for failing to provide the necessaries of life for their child, who died of meningitis in 2012. The child's mother was sentenced to three months house arrest and three years probation while his father received four months in jail and two years of probation.
During the sentencing, a supporter burst into the courtroom and yelled: "The stewardship of children is the parents' responsibility!" before he was dragged out by security.
Outside the courthouse before the decision, dozens of people rallied in support of the controversial couple, and gave them hugs. Messages of encouragement were drawn in chalk on the brick courtyard outside.
"To this day he refuses to admit his actions had any impact."
David and Collet Stephan arrived at court with their three young children in tow, with the kids wearing matching outfits. Their supporters filled the courtroom as the couple awaited their verdict. One supporter reportedly tried to take one of the couple's small children into the sentencing but was not allowed to do so.
The couple were found guilty in April following a highly publicized trial, during which the jury heard they used naturopathic remedies to treat their 19-month-old son Ezekiel, who had been showing symptoms of what the couple believed was croup or the flu.
Justice Rodney Jerke said the couple didn't intend to harm their child, but Ezekiel was denied medical attention that could have made a difference. The parents agreed their child might have meningitis but they still didn't take him to the hospital, the judge said.
He said they weren't convicted because they gave Ezekiel natural remedies—they were convicted because they didn't act appropriately to prevent his death. The trial was not about vaccines, it was about not caring for a sick child, he said.
"He could have lived," the judge told the two parents, adding that untreated bacterial meningitis is fatal. Later, though the judge acknowledged the parents had been "affected by the greatest loss one can experience."
In explaining the differences in their sentences, Judge Jerke said Ezekiel's father was more "willfully blind" to the severity of the situation than his mother was, and that his mother had expressed remorse for not taking her son to hospital while the boy's father worried about his own punishment.
David Stephan also chose to publicize his anti-vaccine views since the conviction, the judge added, and displayed "a complete lack of remorse" for his actions.
"To this day he refuses to admit his actions had any impact," the judge said.
Collet Stephan cried during the sentencing.
The court heard that for over two weeks, the Stephans treated Ezekiel with naturopathic remedies, like garlic, onions, horseradish, and maple syrup. The couple also tried to help his breathing using cool air and a humidifier.
Ezekiel's health appeared to be improving, before suddenly taking a turn for the worse, the court heard. His body became stiff, and he refused to eat or drink. A family friend, who is a nurse, told the couple it was possible the boy had viral meningitis and advised Collett to take him to a doctor. The next day, his back had become so stiff that he couldn't sit up and had to lie on a mattress in the back of his parents' car as they drove to pick up an echinacea mixture from a naturopath. That night, he stopped breathing, prompting them to call 911.
The couple has publicly blamed the ambulance, which the court heard didn't have equipment small enough for a child to help him breathe — according to a paramedic's testimony, the bag valve mask for supplying oxygen was too big, and an endotracheal tube, which provided Ezekiel with some oxygen, was also the wrong size, the Canadian Press reported.
But according to a physician's report, Collet had been performing CPR on him for 10 minutes by the time paramedics arrived, with no signs of breathing.
Ezekiel was eventually transported to a children's hospital in Calgary, where he was diagnosed with bacterial meningitis and where later died.
"If I could turn back time and do something different. I definitely would."
The Stephans had called on their supporters to rally outside of the Lethbridge, Alberta courthouse, wearing blue jeans and white shirts, but the courtroom, according to reporters inside on Thursday, was filled with mostly media.
"We need to get people out to the courthouse to take a stand for this," David had said in an interview livestreamed on Facebook last week with the makers of the controversial documentary Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe. "Ultimately it comes down to whether we have the right to vaccinate or not vaccinate without being held criminally liable, or whether or not we have to rush our children to the doctor every time they get even just the sniffles, in fear that something may just randomly happen and then we're held criminally liable."
Calling their behaviour "arrogant and selfish" at the sentencing hearing, prosecutor Lisa Weich said the parents' choice not to get medical help for Ezekiel was "effectively abuse," the CBC reported. The Crown sought a sentence of three to four-and-a-half years behind bars while the maximum sentence was five years. The judge called the Crown's recommendation was unrealistic and too harsh.
The Crown interjected during Collet's emotional testimony on Thursday, when she claimed Ezekiel's autopsy report had been falsified. The mother was one of five witnesses called by the defence during the sentencing hearing — David did not take the stand.
"If I could turn back time and do something different," Collet said, according to the CBC, "I definitely would."
Ezekiel's death and the trial had taken a serious toll on her mental health, resulting in depression, anxiety, and panic attacks, she testified, adding that many in their community began making rude comments or ignoring them after the charges were laid.
"I had a nightmare after we were charged of a SWAT team breaking into our house in the middle of the night and stealing our children," she said, according to the Canadian Press.
"I didn't know what was going to happen with our children or us, and being a mother is my purpose in life. It's the reason I am here."
In the list of facts Justice Rod Jerke will use to determine the sentence, released earlier this month, he wrote the couple's failure "contributed significantly to the risk to Ezekiel's life."
"Mr. and Mrs. Stephan did not provide Ezekiel with medical attention. This was a failure of their legal duty to provide necessaries of life. It was a marked departure from the required standard of care," he said, the CBC reported. "It is morally blameworthy conduct."
He noted, however, that the Stephans were "caring and attentive parents and had no intention of harming Ezekiel," and expressed his sympathy for the emotional loss suffered by the couple multiple times as Collet, who said "lies" written about her and her husband in the media had brought death threats upon them, testified Thursday.
The Crown asked the court to take into account that the Stephans' views have not changed and that they may act the same way if another one of their three children becomes seriously ill, the Lethbridge Herald reported.
"The accused have not yet put forward any explanation for choosing to treat Ezekiel's suspected (at that time) meningitis with foods and liquids instead of the necessary medical attention he required," said Weich.
"There has yet to be any show of remorse or acknowledgement of the harm they caused to Ezekiel and to the community at large."
It's unclear what will happen to the couple's other three children.
With files from Hilary Beaumont
Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twitter: @anima_tk