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Faith-Healing Parents Plead Guilty in Newborn Daughter's Death

Sarah Elaine Mitchell, right, and Travis Lee Mitchell, the parents of a twin girl who struggled to breath after a home birth, appear in court in Oregon City, Ore., Monday, July 9, 2018. The couple, members of the Followers of Christ Church, that shuns traditional medicine in favor of prayer and anointing the sick with oils, have pleaded guilty to negligent homicide in the death of their premature daughter. (Beth Nakamura/The Oregonian via AP)
Photograph by AP

Sarah and Travis Lee Mitchell—parents of a twin baby girl who died during a home birth—pled guilty on Monday to negligent homicide and criminal mistreatment after they refused medical treatment and instead relied on faith healing when she couldn't breathe.

This is the fifth criminal case involving the death of a Followers of Christ Church child that Clackamas County, Oregon, has seen in the last nine years, but it's the only one that has ended in a plea deal, The Oregonian reports.

A month after the incident took place, KGW8 leaked details of the child's death, revealing exactly what happened that day.

According to court documents, on Saturday, March 5, 2017, Sarah gave birth to twin girls, Ginnifer and Evelyn, at her parents' Oregon City home—the same location that her sister, Shannon Hickman, delivered a baby boy who also died at the scene. A few hours later, Ginnifer, who was born premature (weighing only 3 pounds, 6 ounces), developed a breathing problem and died.

X-rays taken during the autopsy confirm that the child's lungs had collapsed because they were not yet developed enough to work on their own.

The most disturbing detail: Roughly 60 people, including family and church members, were in the home during the birth and none of them called 911, Clackamas County Deputy Medical Examiner Eric Tonsfeldt said.

Witnesses at the scene told Tonsfeldt that Ginnifer was "alive, breathing and being fed from an eye dropper" for hours after her birth. Nearly four hours later, the group claims she became lethargic and stopped breathing. Karen Gunson, the doctor who performed Ginnifer's autopsy, however, said the death would not have occurred that suddenly and could have been prevented had she received proper medical care in a neonatal intensive care unit.

The Mitchells, who are members of the Followers of Christ Church—a group that believes in using prayer and oil instead of medical care—had initially pled "not guilty" to the charges against them, but in a courtroom filled with more than 50 church supporters, the couple had a change of heart and changed their plea to guilty.

The child's mother, Sarah, 25, and her father, Travis, 22, were each sentenced to prison for six years and eight months. However, the couple will only face three years of post-prison supervision after receiving credit for the 13 months they've already served in custody and credit for good time served.

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