The Supreme Court of Canada has ordered a new trial for a couple who used homemade remedies instead of seeking medical attention for their son who died of bacterial meningitis.
David Stephan and his wife, Collet, were found guilty in 2016 of failing to provide the necessaries of life to 19-month-old Ezekiel in 2012.
Their trial in Lethbridge, Alta., heard that they treated the boy with garlic, onion and horseradish rather than take him to a doctor. The Stephans eventually called 911 but the toddler died in hospital.
The Supreme Court heard arguments from the couple’s lawyer and the Crown on Tuesday morning before making the unusual move of ruling immediately from the bench.
The Alberta Court of Appeal had upheld the conviction last November, but because the ruling wasn’t unanimous, the couple had an automatic right to take their case to the Supreme Court.
David Stephan was sentenced to four months in jail and his wife was ordered to spend three months under house arrest — the only exceptions being for trips to church and medical appointments.
Justice Michael Moldaver, speaking for the high court, said the trial judge did not properly instruct jurors “in a way that the jury could understand … Accordingly we would allow the appeal, quash the convictions and order a new trial.”
Lawyers for the Stephans had argued before the Alberta Appeal Court that the trial judge allowed the jury to be overwhelmed by medical evidence, which unfairly distracted from the real question of whether the Stephans acted differently than any other reasonable parent.
David Stephan said outside court that he and his wife feel vindicated.
“We’re grateful because this is a move in the right direction and we now have the opportunity to bring the whole truth forward,” he said.
“We’re just so excited to have the ability to do that and to be able to uphold parental rights here in Canada.”
Stephan had posted on Facebook last week that the Supreme Court hearing was important for parents in all of Canada.
“Our Supreme Court hearing … will not only affect the future of our family, but the future of all Canadians as this landmark, precedent-setting case is being used to deprive parental rights and health freedoms in Canada,” he wrote.
He also made reference to the “real criminals,” but when asked on Tuesday what he meant, he would not elaborate.
“We’ll have to wait and find out won’t we?” he said.
Witnesses at the trial said the toddler’s body was so stiff he couldn’t sit in his car seat, so he had to lie on a mattress when his mother drove him from their rural Alberta home to a naturopathic clinic in Lethbridge, where she bought an echinacea mixture.
The Stephans never called for medical assistance until Ezekiel stopped breathing. He was taken to a local hospital and died after being transported to Calgary’s Children’s Hospital.
By Bill Graveland in Calgary. With files from Terry Pedwell in Ottawa