An Alberta mother and father who treated their ill son with herbal remedies rather than get him medical attention have been acquitted in the boy’s death.
The courtroom in Lethbridge, Alta., erupted into cheers and when a judge ruled Thursday that David and Collet Stephan were not guilty of failing to provide the necessaries of life to 19-month-old Ezekiel, who died in 2012.
The medical examiner who did the autopsy testified that Ezekiel died of bacterial meningitis, but a pathologist called by the defence said the child died from a lack of oxygen to the brain when he was in an ambulance.
Queen’s Bench Justice Terry Clackson spoke for only four minutes before telling the parents to stand.
“The Stephans did not know Ezekiel had meningitis but were alert to the possibility and monitoring the symptoms,” Clackson said before releasing a full written decision. “The meningitis Ezekiel had was viral and he did not die from meningitis but from a lack of oxygen.”
Collet Stephan cried as she hugged her husband. Outside court, she gave him a kiss before he spoke to reporters.
“It was an emotional roller-coaster. We didn’t know what to expect today,” David Stephan said. “It is the right decision.
“And it is shocking because it has been seven years of our lives fighting this, so it has become part of our identity. It is just a beautiful thought that we can move on with our lives.”
It was the second trial for the Stephans, who were found guilty by a jury in 2016. The Supreme Court of Canada set aside the conviction and ordered a new trial.
David Stephan said the verdict has renewed his faith in the legal system and reaffirms protection of parental rights.
Stephan, who represented himself in the second trial, said he will seek legal costs, which he earlier estimated at $1.2 million.
“For those watching the trial, the evidence simply wasn’t there,” said defence lawyer Shawn Buckley, who represented the couple in the first trial and Collet Stephan in the second trial.
The province’s Crown prosecution service said in an emailed statement that it’s reviewing the judge’s decision to determine if it will appeal.
In his ruling, the judge said that there was no physical evidence that the toddler died of meningitis and that the Crown had therefore failed to prove its case.
Clackson said that Ezekiel was indeed sick, but the law does not impose a duty to seek medical attention for every sick child.
“The child had been sick, had improved, then regressed and was waxing and waning. They were watching him closely for signs of meningitis, just in case, even though he did not appear to have any of the symptoms,” Clackson wrote.
“I have concluded that the Stephans knew what meningitis was, knew that bacterial meningitis could be very serious, knew what symptoms to look for ... They thought their son had some sort of croup or flu-like viral infection.”
Stephan’s father co-founded Truehope Nutritional Support in Raymond, Alta., in 1996 to find a natural treatment for bipolar disorder after his wife took her life.
During the trial, the Stephans testified that they initially thought Ezekiel had croup, an upper airway infection. They treated him at their home with natural remedies, including a smoothie made with garlic, onion and horseradish.
The parents said the boy appeared to be recovering at times and they saw no reason to take him to hospital, despite his having a fever and lacking energy.
They did call an ambulance when the child stopped breathing. He was put on life support in hospital and died a few days later.
David Stephan argued it was a failure by medical professionals to properly intubate his son that led to his death. Testimony indicated the boy was without oxygen for nearly nine minutes because the ambulance that took him to hospital wasn’t properly stocked with breathing equipment to fit a child.
“The physical evidence supports ... (the) conclusion that Ezekiel died because he was deprived of oxygen. That occurred because he stopped breathing and the resulting oxygen deprivation lasted long enough to lead to his death,” Clackson wrote.
The judge added that the Crown did not prove that medical attention would have saved the boy’s life.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.