Ezekiel Stephan was a 19-month-old toddler who developed meningitis during early 2012. The parents, David and Collet Stephan, where quackery proponents who refused to take him to a doctor and only gave him various fake naturopathic products. After suffering for two weeks, Ezekiel Stephan died after finally being taken to a hospital. After spending almost four years in the criminal justice system with two rounds in the court of appeals, the parents were found not guilty on September 19, 2019 after a retrial.
This means that, should the prosecution refuse to appeal, David Stephan and his wife Collet will get away with letting their son suffer from meningitis for two weeks that led to his death. This is a major setback for those who want to hold quackery parents accountable and a crucial triumph for pseudoscientific quackery that harms children.
What happened to Ezekiel Stephan?
Ezekiel Stephan developed meningitis in early 2012. The parents initially dismissed it as merely “croup” and offered him various naturopathic remedies that have no medical benefit for meningitis. The toddler became increasingly sick over time, but David kept getting more supplements. In fact, it became so bad that Ezekiel was so stiff that he could not sit up in the car properly.
Collet was more worried than David, so she searched on the Internet and called a friend who worked in a health care setting who suspected that it might be meningitis. Yet, they refused to take Ezekiel to the hospital until about two weeks. Instead of calling an ambulance right away, they tried to drive Ezekiel to the hospital. He stopped breathing at some point and they called for an ambulance but canceled it at the last moment when Ezekiel appeared to regain his breathing. Then things got worse and they had to get an ambulance. At the hospital, Ezekiel had brain damage and died.
It would take four years before the parents ended up in the courts.
What happened in the courts before this?
In the lower courts, David got 4 months in prison and Collet got 3 months house arrest. The difference was because Collet actually looked up health information on the Internet and got a friend with a background in health care to check on Ezekiel. David, on the other hand, appears remorseless and just went ahead and bought more supplements.
Both the Stephans and the Crown prosecutors appealed the court’s decision. The parents wanted to be declared not guilty, while the Crown prosecutors wanted the punishment to be harder. David just continued to sell supplements.
However, the appeal court decision was not unanimous. One judge thought that there was a problem with the jury instructions. This opened up for the possibility of a direct appeal to the provincial superior court, which vacated the court of appeals conviction on a technicality and ordered a new retrial. Before the retrial, the couple demanded 4 million Canadian dollars to cover their current and future legal fees. The court rejected it.
The retrial began in the summer of 2019.
A full timeline of events is available here.
What was behind the latest court judgement?
The retrial finished in the early fall of 2019, and the decision was given on September 19, 2019. David and Collet Stephan were found not guilty.
How on earth can parents who have been convicted two times based on solid scientific evidence get found not guilty in a retrial? There are a number of factors.
First, the parents got the ability to demand that the case be decided by a single judge (Terry Clackson from the Court of Queen’s Bench Justice) instead of a jury. This effectively meant that they only needed to convince a single person that they were innocent.
Second, they spent a lot of money on bringing in different “experts” to testify in their favor. This likely obscured the evidence to such a degree that the judge became confused. Most judges are not trained to sift through and evaluate complex scientific and medical evidence. It appears that the judge got fooled into thinking that Ezekiel somehow did not die due to bacterial meningitis at all:
However, in his written decision, Clackson wrote that he accepted the opinion of Alberta’s former chief medical officer, Dr. Anny Sauvageau, who told court she does not believe Ezekiel actually died from bacterial meningitis.
“In this case, we know there is no specific treatment that is effective for viral meningitis,” Clackson wrote.
“It follows that the Crown did not prove medical attention would have saved [Ezekiel’s] life or that if he had viral meningitis and it was life-threatening [which is not established in the evidence], medical attention even could have saved his life.”
In reality, there was clear clinical evidence of bacterial meningitis, both from the brain scans and finding puss in the spinal fluid. There was no evidence for a lack of oxygen in the brain. The alleged “expert” that the defense used was Dr. Anny Sauvageau, who does not have a license to practice medicine in Alberta and is not a board-certified pathologist. She also have a history of defending parents who let their children die previously.
The third reason they got away with it in this decision was that they heavily relied on arguments for parental rights:
Speaking with the media after the decision was handed down, David Stephan called the last seven years an “emotional roller-coaster.”
“We didn’t know what to expect coming into today, and it’s the right decision, and it’s shocking because it’s been seven years of our life fighting this so it’s become part of our identity,” he said.
“It’s a beautiful thought that we can move on with our lives.”
Stephan said his case “helps protect parental rights” so that parents won’t be held criminally liable if they choose alternative treatments for their sick children.
There is no parental right that says that you can let your child suffer from bacterial meningitis. This is just a after-the-fact rationalization to justify things that cannot be justified.
David and Collet Stephan have been found not guilty. Should the Crown persecutors decide not to appeal the verdict, it means that they will face no legal consequences whatsoever for the harm they did to their son.
In addition, the 1.2 million Canadian dollars (~904 938 USD) they have stated that they have spent on legal fees and other related costs could very well be reimbursed by the court:
He also says the fight isn’t over between his family and the Alberta government — he still wants to recoup the $1.2 million he says his family has spent in legal fees.
Allegedly, they have had to sell their home to cover the costs and then were in a bad financial situation before this retrial in the court of appeals. From being in what is likely some form of economic crisis, they could get it all back.
David has been booted out from several wellness expos in the past while this case was working its way through the court system. If this court decision becomes final, perhaps he will be welcomed back to those kind of alternative health conferences, events and other venues. This would likely also allow him to build up more wealth over time.
The parents are also likely to become even bigger martyrs among the alternative medicine movement as time goes by. Perhaps they can make even money from it by holding talks, writing books, participating in interviews or even fake documentaries. If there is any silver lining, it is that their other children will not have to live in poverty in a family with a lot of debt.
It would seem that the only way that David and Collet could ever face responsibility for letting their son Ezekiel Stephan die is if the Crown prosecutors would appeal it one more level to the Supreme Court. There, David and Collet would face a larger number of judges and not a single judge. Presumably, it would be harder to fool many judges than a single judge.
In a written statement, the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service said it has not yet decided whether to appeal Clackson’s decision.
“We respect the decision of the Court,” reads the statement. “This has been a challenging case for everyone involved. The Alberta Crown Prosecution Service will review the decision to determine next steps.”
However, there is a risk with such an appeal to the highest court. If the Crown prosecution loses and the Stephans are once again found not guilty, this decision could become a legal precedent for later cases in the Canadian court system. In a worst case scenario, it would mean that future cases where parents let their children die in similar ways would have to adhere to the decision in the Supreme Court. In other words, it could mean that more parents in the future could more easily escape justice for what they did to their children.
It is a difficult situation, but the only way that Ezekiel Stephan can ever get the justice he deserves is if the Crown Prosecutors appeal the decision.