David and Collet Stephan treated dying toddler with herbs and religious blessings, retrial hears
Couple's convictions for failing to provide necessaries of life were overturned by Supreme Court
Herbal remedies, alternative therapies and a priesthood blessing: these are some of the treatments used by Collet and David Stephan in the treatment of their 19-month old son who had meningitis, a judge heard Monday, as the couple's second trial on the same charges got underway.
The Stephans, who now have four children, are on trial in Lethbridge, Alta., accused of criminally failing their son Ezekiel who died in 2012.
On Monday afternoon, the judge heard Collet suspected her son had meningitis and was told to take him to an emergency room days before his condition worsened to the point that the toddler stopped breathing.
A jury convicted the Stephans in April 2016 in Court of Queen's Bench of failing to provide the necessaries of life. The Alberta Court of Appeal upheld the conviction, but the Supreme Court of Canada ruled the original trial judge erred in his instructions to the jury.
Although unusual in everyday parlance, the word "necessaries" — not "necessities" — is the term the legal system uses.
"I know that the two of you have been through a very difficult time," said Court of Queen's Bench Justice Terry Clackson as the trial got underway Monday morning. "I know that, ultimately, the fact that you're on trial is a result of a traumatic event to your family."
As he walked into court, David Stephan told reporters he and his wife were feeling nervous, stressed and unprepared.
"Yesterday was a full day of preparation and trying to make arrangements for the upcoming month, month and a half here," said Stephan. "So, yeah, it was a little bit stressful."
In her opening statement, prosecutor Britta Kristensen said although Ezekiel might have been ill earlier, the Crown is not alleging any wrongdoing until the three-day period from March 10 to 13, 2012.
On March 10, Collet called Lexie Vataman, who was the receptionist for the naturopathic doctor the Stephans used in Lethbridge. Vataman testified Colett asked for a recommendation "for her little one's immune system."
"She said he might have a type of meningitis," said Vataman. "I said 'I think you should go to a medical doctor.'"
Vataman says she then asked Dr. Tracey Tannis what to do.
"She was a little alarmed and said maybe they should have him checked out in emergency," said Vataman. Days later, on March 13, the receptionist testified Collet came in to pick up echinacea, an herbal remedy, for the child.
Toddler 'breathing peacefully'
The Crown also called Terrie Shaw as a witness. Shaw is a midwife and nurse who, in 2012, knew the Stephans and was helping Collet prepare for a home birth.
On March 12, 2012, Shaw said she received a call from Collet, telling her that Ezekiel had fallen asleep in the bath and was sick with a cough.
When she arrived at the home, Shaw said Ezekiel was sleeping but testified she noticed no outward signs of illness.
"He looked like he was calm and comfortable and sleeping peacefully," Shaw said under cross-examination. She even checked the toddler with her stethoscope and noted he was "breathing peacefully, easily."
Shaw said she and Collet searched meningitis on the family's laptop and she advised the mother to seek a medical opinion given the concern for the boy.
Mother described as 'competent, loving'
Then the two discussed treating Ezekiel with herbal remedies, alternative therapies and even having a priesthood blessing performed.
Shaw said she and the Stephans were friends, attending each others' family functions and described Collet as a "competent, loving, responsive and sensitive mother to her children."
The next day, March 13, the Stephans took Ezekiel to Lethbridge so they could buy remedies but, according to Kristensen, the toddler's body was so stiff at that point that the couple was unable to get him into his car seat and instead had him lie on a mattress in the back of their car.
By the following night, Collet called Shaw again, this time to say Ezekiel had stopped breathing and the family was en route to meet paramedics who would take the boy to the Cardston hospital.
Kristensen told the judge that by the time paramedics got involved, Ezekiel had no pulse and no neurological activity.
"He was lifeless at the time," said the prosecutor who said by the time Ezekiel saw medical professionals, his illness had progressed too far.
After being airlifted to the Alberta Children's Hospital in Calgary, Ezekiel died.
Stephans wanted $4M
The country's top court found that given the polarizing evidence from Crown and defence medical experts, and an "overabundance of medical evidence," the initial trial judge's instructions on how to apply the law to deliberations did not supply jurors with the tools they needed to properly decide the case.
After the Supreme Court victory, the couple fired their lawyers, saying they could not afford further legal fees.
- 2019 trial date set for parents previously convicted in meningitis death of Alberta toddler
- Alberta judge says no money for couple charged in son's meningitis death
Last week, the Stephans, who are representing themselves, tried to delay their trial until November, arguing Collet would be able to have a defence lawyer act for her if she was given extra time. The judge hearing that application refused to postpone the trial.
The Stephans have had several opportunities to obtain legal representation.
At the outset of the latest trial, Clackson spent some time explaining the trial process to the accused, who plan to represent themselves. Two lawyers will be stepping in to help from time to time.
The lawyers are Shawn Buckley, who represented the couple at their first trial, and Jason Demers, a lawyer who originally offered to act for Collet if the trial could be delayed until November.
In December, the couple tried to have the trial delayed until the provincial government could reimburse them $1 million for what they claimed they had already spent on lawyers. They also asked that an additional $3 million be placed in trust for defence fees at their upcoming trial. That application was also denied.
Critical of system
David Stephan has been publicly critical of the justice system, in general, and judges, their jury and the media, in particular.
He also became a regular at the recent trial for Calgary couple Jennifer and Jeromie Clark, who were convicted of failing to provide the necessaries of life and criminal negligence causing the death of their toddler son from malnourishment and a staph infection.
The Clarks had refused to take their son to a doctor until it was too late.
The first trial became a battle of experts, with prosecutors and defence lawyers each calling their own medical witnesses.
The trial is set to last four weeks.