Debunking "Alternative" Medicine

Prosecutors Appeal Acquittal of Quack Parents Who Let Their Son Die of Meningitis

Prosecutors Appeal Acquittal of Quack Parents Who Let Their Son Die of Meningitis

In September of 2019, David and Collet Stephan achieved a stunning acquittal for letting their son Ezekiel die of meningitis without seeking proper medical attention in time (and thereby failing to provide the necessities of life).

Now, the prosecutors have appealed this verdict and asked the court to either void the conviction and order a new trial or replace the acquittal with a conviction. The Stephans had been convicted in two previous trials, but the retrial featured a judge that appear to have committed multiple severe errors. For instance, he seems to have relied on faulty medical standards and expressed substantial racial bias towards a medical expert for the prosecutors.

It is unclear what will happen with this appeal. If it gets rejected, David and Collet Stephan will walk free from their heinous actions and possibly get reimbursed with over a million dollars that they have allegedly spent on defending themselves in court.

There would be no justice for Ezekiel.

What happened to Ezekiel Stephan?

Ezekiel Stephan became sick with meningitis in 2012. He was sick for almost two weeks before his parents, David and Collet Stephan, decided to take him to the hospital. During these two weeks, his parents gave him nothing but naturopathic quackery in the form of various concoctions of supplements. Ezekiel became increasingly stiff to the point that his back arched and he could not sit up straight. At the end of those two weeks, the toddler had trouble breathing.

Instead of calling for an ambulance, they decided to drive him themselves. He stopped breathing in the car and once the ambulance met up with them, he was blue. After the ambulance had gotten the child to the hospital, he was airlifted to a pediatric ICU in Calgary.

Despite the best efforts of a team of medical professionals, Ezekiel was declared brain dead.

Had the parents just taken him to a hospital, he would probably have survived. In the end, their infatuation with naturopathic supplements and other forms of pseudoscientific quackery cost them the life of their son.

What has happened so far inside and outside of the courts?

The meandering path through the Canadian court system that this case has taken has been described extensively in previous articles on Debunking Denialism:

In summary, they got convicted in the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta in 2016. Then they appealed to the Court of Appeal of Alberta and also got convicted there in 2017. Because one judge dissented, it allowed them to do an automatic appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada. The Supreme Court of Canada quashed the conviction in 2018 and send the case back to the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta. In the 2019 retrial, they got acquitted. Throughout this process, David Stephan continued to sell supplements and visiting various alternative health expos and conventions. He managed to get himself cancelled from a few of them.

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What kind of appeal did the prosecutors do?

The Crown prosecutors decided to file an appeal to the acquittal a short time before the ability to file such an appeal expired. They did not appeal the verdict to the Supreme Court of Canada. Instead, they make an appeal to the Alberta Court of Appeal and requested either that they order a new trial or replace the acquittal with a conviction. In essence, they did not do a standard appeal to ask a higher-level court to try the case again. Rather, they put forward the position that the trial that led to the acquittal of David and Collet Stephan was faulty and contained errors.

What were the reasons for the appeal?

There were four points in the appeal document made by the Crown prosecutors. Although the notice of appeal document is not currently available at the time this store broke, news reporting suggest that these four points include the following aspects. The Crown prosecutors claim that there was racial bias against the doctor the prosecution relied on, that the judge used an inappropriate “medical standard unknown to law”, that the judge relied on “irrelevant considerations” for judging credibility of witnesses and “gave rise to a reasonable apprehension of bias”.

What could happen now?

The appeal could go through and the judgement in the Alberta Court of Appeal could be quashed. If that happens, the trial has to be done over from scratch. The old decision is chucked out and a new judge presides over the case. This could result in a conviction. If David and Collet Stephan do get convicted, they have the option of appealing once more to the Supreme Court, but that court might not take up their case.

Another option is that the top court of Alberta simply replaces the acquittal with a conviction. It seems more legally robust if the conviction was removed and a new trial was ordered, as oppose to merely replacing the acquittal with a conviction. If the latter should happen, it opens up for even more conspiracy theories about how “the system” punishes parents without a fair and proper trial. Another trial proceeding would also increase the exposure, availability and coverage of this tragic case. This might be better for children who are in the risk zone of ending up like Ezekiel. It could also help to provide more information to those who care about keeping children from being harmed by pseudoscientific quackery.

If the appeal does not go through, the non-guilty verdict might come in effect. This could potentially lead David and Collet Stephan to get off without any legal punishments whatsoever for letting their toddler son suffer for two weeks with meningitis and die. It is also conceivable that they could get reimbursed for a substantial proportion of the money they have spent on their legal case. Perhaps a greater consequence, is that they will be seen as triumphant defeaters of the criminal justice system and social services. Perhaps it would also make parents who are share their beliefs to be less careful about giving proper health care to their children.

All the court decision documents so far

Getting a hold of all the relevant court documents can be difficult for those who are not familiar with the Canadian system. Debunking Denialism has not been able to locate all court documents, but many of the most crucial documents are available in this section.

  • R v Stephan, 2016 ABQB 319: This document contains the findings of facts for sentencing decision after their 2016 conviction (Findings of Fact on June 8, 2016 from Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta).
  • R v Stephan, 2016 ABQB 353: This document includes the reasons for sentencing (Reasons for Sentence on June 27, 2016 from Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta).
  • R v Stephan, 2017 ABCA 380: This is the court document that explains the reasons for judgement in their 2017 convicting in the next court level. This also includes the dissenting opinion by the third judge that opened up for an automatic appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada (Reasons for Judgment on 15 November, 2017 from Alberta Court of Appeal).
  • R. v. Stephan 2018 SCC 21: This is the Supreme Court of Canada decision to order a new trial. The case got sent back to the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta (May 15, 2018 from the Supreme Court of Canada)
  • R v Stephan, 2019 ABQB 715: This is the retrial acquittal that was recently appealed (Reasons for Decision on September 19, 2019 from Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta ).


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