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Alberta father of toddler who died of meningitis testifies in own defence

An Alberta father accused with his wife of causing the death of their toddler by refusing to take him to a doctor when he had meningitis told a Lethbridge court that he thought his son just had the flu.

'We hope to show that we're not guilty,' says David Stephan as he and wife enter courthouse

An Alberta father accused with his wife of causing the death of their toddler by refusing to take him to a doctor when he had meningitis takes the stand in Lethbridge. 1:48

An Alberta father accused with his wife of causing the death of their toddler by refusing to take him to a doctor when he had meningitis told a Lethbridge court that he thought his son just had the flu.

David Stephan, 32, and his wife, Collet Stephan, 35, have pleaded not guilty to failing to provide the necessaries of life for their 19-month-old son Ezekiel, who died in March 2012.

David Stephan, 32, and his wife Collet Stephan, 35, have pleaded not guilty to failing to provide the necessaries of life for 19-month-old Ezekiel, who died in March 2012. (Facebook)

"We hope to show that we're not guilty, by explaining what took place," David Stephan told CBC News as he and his wife arrived at the courthouse Monday.

The couple held hands before the man went to the witness box to be sworn in before an eight-woman, four-man jury.

"I saw lethargy. He had the presence of just being sick or unwell, and I just felt he probably had the flu," he testified about his son's illness, which lasted a few weeks before his death.

Stephan told court he knew little about meningitis before his son died. (The illness is an inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord, and can be caused by a virus).

"We are not abusive parents that would inflict physical harm on our children," Stephan testified.

The trial began March 7 and the prosecution rested its case just over two weeks ago. 

In its opening statement, the Crown told court the couple loved their son and are not accused of ignoring or killing him but argued they should have sought medical help sooner.

The jury already heard that the couple used home remedies like olive leaf extract and whey protein rather than take Ezekiel to a doctor.

A witness — who fills holistic prescriptions at the Lethbridge Naturopathic Medical Clinic — testified earlier in the trial that Collet Stephan called her in March 2012 asking for something to build the child's immune system because she feared the boy had some form of meningitis.

The jury also heard evidence that the child became so stiff, he was unable to sit in his car seat and had to lie on a mattress in the back of the family's vehicle.

David Stephan disputed that Monday, saying the problem wasn't that Ezekiel was too stiff but that he found it too uncomfortable.

The court heard that the Stephans did not seek medical help until the toddler stopped breathing.

Ezekiel was airlifted to a hospital in Calgary.

Stephan described how he reacted when doctors there told the couple that Ezekiel was non-responsive.

"I couldn't grasp it at the time," he said.

The child was taken off life support after five days. 

Truehope

David Stephan told court that he is vice president of a nutritional supplements company founded by his father, Truehope Nutritional Support Inc., based in Raymond.

Health Canada launched an unsuccessful court case in 2004 to try to stop the distribution of the company's supplement EMPowerplus — a product the company claims can manage mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder — and also issued warnings about it.

In 2006, the company was found not guilty of distributing EMPowerplus without a drug identification number.

Last month, court heard the Stephans gave the boy a scoop of EMPowerplus. On the couple's Facebook page, David Stephan says Ezekiel was already taking the supplement regularly because it "assists with brain function."

Court also heard the Stephans gave the boy various home remedies — water with maple syrup, juice with frozen berries and finally a mixture of apple cider vinegar, horseradish root, hot peppers, mashed onion, garlic and ginger root —  as Ezekiel's condition worsened.

The family has posted on social media that they feel they are being unfairly persecuted and their approach to health should be respected.

With files from CBC's Meghan Grant and The Canadian Press