Experts say appeals in toddler meningitis death case could drag on for years

The appeal of both the conviction and sentence given to parents who failed to get proper medical treatment for their son before he died of bacterial meningitis could take years, say legal experts.

Crown appealing sentence as insufficient, defence appealing guilty verdict

David and Collet Stephan leave the courthouse in Lethbridge April 26, 2016 surrounded by family and supporters after being found guilty of failing to provide the necessaries of life in the death of their 19-month-old son Ezekiel in March 2012. (David Rossiter/The Canadian Press)

The appeal of both the conviction and sentence given to parents who failed to get proper medical  treatment for their son before he died of bacterial meningitis could take years, say legal experts.

Justice Rodney Jerke sentenced 33-year-old David Stephan to four months in jail and his wife, Collet, 36, to three months of house arrest in June after a jury found them guilty of failing to provide the necessaries of life.

The Crown is appealing the sentence as insufficient, while the defence is appealing the guilty verdict.

Court heard how the parents treated their 19-month-old son Ezekiel with hot pepper, garlic, onions and horseradish instead of taking him to a doctor, and only called an ambulance after he stopped breathing in 2012.

The Stephans are free on bail under conditions, including that they take their three other children to a licensed doctor or nurse if they are injured or ill.

The appeal of the conviction will be heard first followed by the question of sentencing.

'It's complicated'

"It's arduous. It's complicated and it's not like a shoplifting appeal that might take a day or two," says Alain Hepner, a longtime Calgary defence lawyer who is not working on the case.

"With the conviction appeal you're likely looking at the fall of 2017. It's already August of 2016. As a counsel on appeals like that which I have conducted that timeline is pretty accurate."

Ezekiel Stephan died in 2012 from meningitis. (Prayers for Ezekiel/Facebook)

Lisa Silver, a law professor at the University of Calgary, doubts the first hearing will occur before next fall and the decision will likely be reserved.

"I myself have done very lengthy appeals that have been months and months and months. It takes a long time to do it right," she says, adding that since the Stephans are out on bail the case would be seen as a lower priority.

'Cases may be lengthy'

"They have to deal with all the people who do not get bail and they need to come first. Their cases may be lengthy, their cases may take time and they need to be heard first."

David Stephan says it's "unfortunate" the appeal process will take so long but it's important to fight the conviction.

"It's a very concerning precedent that's been set, that put a lot of parents into a state of fear," he says.

Protective custody due to threats

"We've had people contacting us from Ontario saying how they're concerned about what's taking place here and they now fear, being parents, making possibly a wrong decision."

Stephan served 20 days of his four-month sentence before he was released pending the appeal and says he was held in protective custody because of threats.

The family had moved to Nelson, B.C., after Ezekiel's death, but bail conditions require them to remain in Alberta. They are now living with his father in the town of Magrath.

"I think life will just kind of continue on as normal — just spending the summer with family."

No problems with conditions

Stephan says they have complied with the condition requiring them to take their three boys to the doctor for a check-up and will make sure they get medical treatment if necessary.

"I have no problems with that," says Stephan. "Everything was perfectly fine. No concerns."

A University of Calgary bioethicist says the case shouldn't be allowed to drag on.

"The general public took this matter very seriously and if the justice system does not show the same measure of concern then there's a discordance between public sentiment internationally and the local justice system," says Juliet Guichon.

With files from CP’s Chris Purdy in Edmonton