Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

A Twitchell Juror Reflects on Fairness, Justice

COURTROOM 808 of the Suffolk County Superior Courthouse, where the trial was held, seemed huge at first. High ceilings. Lots of wood. Large, sober portrait on the wall. David and Ginger Twitchell were represented by Rikki Klieman - a petite, high-powered attorney from Klieman, Lyons, Schindler, Gross & Pabian - and her co-counsel, Stephen Lyons. The commonwealth was represented primarily by special prosecutor John Kiernan, an aggressive, outspoken district attorney who earned his stripes under Suffolk County DA Newman Flanagan. The jurors - eight women and four men - ranged in age from 25 to 75. I was among the youngest. At age 30, I had spent 10 years playing in a rock-and-roll band, supporting myself at various times as a waitress and a data processor. The group also included, among others, an opera student, a graphic artist, a secretary, and a former Roman Catholic priest.

As for the defendants, I would soon learn that David and Ginger Twitchell were a 30-ish married couple, both descended from several generations of devout Christian Scientists. In 1986 they lived in the Hyde Park section of Boston with their two young sons. During five days in April 1986, their youngest son, Robyn, displayed varying flu-like symptoms. The Twitchells, in conjunction with a Christian Science practitioner and a Christian Science nurse, treated the boy's illness with spiritual healing, which ultimately failed. The child died of a bowel obstruction due to a rare, congenital birth defect. Now, four years later, the parents were on trial for involuntary manslaughter, facing off against the commonwealth for not choosing conventional medical care.

About these ads

What I learned surprisingly little about over the course of the trial was the Twitchell's world view, the (to them) very real and powerful set of beliefs that had led them to use spiritual healing in the first place. As with many people, my knowledge of Christian Science was limited to several vague impressions. I knew (or thought I knew) that they did not go to doctors. The closest I had come to the religion was several months prior to my jury selection, when I had noticed that a Christian Science practitioner had an office listing in the same building as my dentist. Aside from this less-than-definitive experience, my information was nil. And though I'd been raised as a Catholic, I had fallen away from active involvement in the church.

Given the projected six-to-eight week length of the trial, I assumed the jury would be presented with an in-depth look at the theological foundations of the church, its history, and the practice of Christian Science healing. The Twitchell case was often billed in the media as a case that put ``religion on trial,'' but I learned very few facts about the religion itself.

I was also surprised by the judge's reactions to both sides during the length of the trial. She seemed exceedingly lenient toward the prosecution, particularly the doctors they called in, who made several inflammatory remarks. For example, one doctor began to use highly charged personal language - he waved toward the Twitchells and spoke of ``preventing a tragedy.'' When the defense counsel vigorously protested, the judge seemed reluctant to sustain their objections.

Because of the length of the trial, the jury was allowed to take notes, and I recall making a large notation registering my shock. But I rationalized that this was only part of the high drama of the courtroom; typical procedure in a world to which I was unaccustomed. I had not yet seen the defense presentation, and I assumed the defense would be allowed an equally loose rein. But the judge seemed to handle defense witnesses in a markedly different manner. When the prosecutor seemed to badger defense witnesses - especially Christian Scientists - Judge Sandra Hamlin didn't intervene with the same vigor. Every religion is based on complex doctrine, which makes it unsuitable for the contentious ``just answer yes or no'' probing of cross-examination. The prosecution relied heavily on a few quotes from Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, the definitive Christian Science text by Mary Baker Eddy, insisting that witnesses consider, without elaboration, the veracity of the quotes. Several witnesses visibly bridled, voicing protest at being forced to explain the dogma of their church on limited quotations taken out of context (i.e., ``Disease is an error of the mind''). One woman remained calm under the heat of questioning until at last, frustrated at not being allowed to answer in depth, she replied that she felt her rights were being violated. The judge reprimanded her harshly, instructing her to answer the prosecutor's questions.

By then I was becoming extremely frustrated myself. It seemed that the prosecution was attempting to present a limited version of Christian Science, which seemed to defeat the purpose of the whole trial. I felt that a clear understanding of the tenets of the religion would have elucidated the actions and choices of the defendants.

When the forewoman read the verdict, I was filled with profound doubt about whether justice had been served. The jury was later herded through a throng of reporters and cameras and returned by bus to the hotel. While we congregated in the lounge of the floor that had been reserved for us, someone flipped on the television.

Numb and exhausted, I sat watching the news as the story broke across the local stations. The same images played again and again across the channels: the Twitchells besieged by press; the other jurors being hustled to the waiting bus; my own emotional exit from the jury box. I watched as David Twitchell said his faith in government, not God, was challenged by the verdict. I heard him thank the jury for our attempt to be fair.

About these ads

Then Rikki Klieman, the Twitchells' defense attorney, made a post-trial statement. She was irate that the judge had ruled as inadmissible - and thus kept from us during the trial - a 1971 amendment to the child abuse-and-neglect statute, which provides parents in Massachusetts with an exemption from criminal liability in the event they use spiritual healing to treat their children. Another juror and I fixated on Klieman's interview, stunned not only that such a law existed, but also that it was not allowed in as a defense. Was this the reason we were so often banished to the conference room during proceedings and later told by the judge not to speculate on what had been discussed in our absence?

The exemption specifically states, ``A child shall not be deemed to be neglected or lack proper physical care for the sole reason that he is being provided remedial treatment by spiritual means alone in accordance with the tenets and practices of a recognized church or religious denomination by a duly accredited practitioner thereof.'' That statute had been questioned once, back in 1975, when the attorney general was asked whether a parent could be held criminally liable for choosing spiritual care over medical care in treating a child. He essentially said no, that the exemption law ``expressly precludes imposition of criminal liability as a negligent parent for failure to provide medical care because of religious beliefs.''

And yet, unbeknown to the jurors, Judge Hamlin had ruled that since it was part of a statute concerning child abuse and neglect, the exemption law did not apply in cases of serious illness or death - even though the law does not specifically state this. Which seemed to put the Twitchells in a legal Catch-22. Isn't it unfairly contradictory to recognize spiritual healing as legal and yet hold a person criminally liable when the healing fails?

The jury was often asked, in the wording of the charge, to hold the Twitchells' actions to those of a ``reasonable'' person. It seems to me that the Twitchells have ``reasonably'' interpreted the exemption law, as well as the attorney general's opinion, as protecting their choice of spiritual healing over medical care. The jury was instructed that all parents are held to the same standard of care for their children; but if this is true, why are Christian Science parents specifically exempt from this standard? The Twitchells were convicted for following the tenets of their faith that concern spiritual healing, behavior that is not clearly prohibited by the law.

The constitutional questions of freedoms and rights are complicated and made more difficult by the fact that everyone involved wanted what was best for the child. David and Ginger Twitchell relied on spiritual healing, the ``prayerful work,'' that in their experience had worked successfully for several generations. It was difficult at first for me to comprehend the depth of their spiritual beliefs, a depth that is lacking in my own life. But I believe that for the Twitchells, spiritual healing through Christian Science is as conventional and dependable as standard medical care is to the average person.

Because jurors can't discuss their case with outsiders, they spend a lot of time alone with their thoughts. Over those two months, I had a lot to think about.

From my assigned seat, I had a clear view of the Twitchells, and more than once I felt embarrassed and voyeuristic listening to the intimate details about their lives and their son's death. As the weeks passed, I often wrote down the name ``Robin,'' as a phalanx of doctors for the prosecution was called before us to diagnose the child's condition from the autopsy report. Several weeks into the trial his birth certificate was admitted into evidence. I noted with surprise that the correct spelling was ``Robyn.'' A small fact, but one that stayed with me - I could imagine the parents sitting down and deciding on that spelling, wanting something unique for their son.

Other bits of testimony and evidence gave me further insight into the lives of the defendants. For example, we examined a photograph, taken on the Saturday before Robyn's death, of David Twitchell with his two sons celebrating his wedding anniversary. On the kitchen table sit several modestly wrapped presents, which are addressed to David and Ginger, and a bottle of Welch's sparkling grape juice, a celebratory substitute for the alcohol Christian Scientists do not drink. Later, David Twitchell would testify that he tried to coax Robyn to eat by withholding a ride in their new red Vega until he had finished his breakfast, because in the child's eyes it looked like a sports car. These were the things that spoke volumes to me, the seemingly insignificant details, the minutiae of each day, that often go unnoticed but ultimately add up to and define our lives. I couldn't help looking at the parents who now sat in the harsh glare of public scrutiny, certain that in their wildest imaginings they never could have divined such a course for their lives.

Sometimes we look to God to guide us, sometimes we look to the law. Perhaps each of us grapples with what we perceive to be the failings of each, and the deeper failures inherent within ourselves. The evening of the verdict - the Fourth of July - I watched the fireworks from the Esplanade illuminate Boston's sky. To the sound of John Williams and the Pops, I wept again, as I had earlier that day in the jury box of courtroom 808. My tears fell for Robyn, for the Twitchells, for myself, for the profound human need to be embraced and comforted by the divine. They fell for a justice system that had left me feeling disturbed and distrustful.

I looked up into the darkness again and watched the repeated explosions splash the night sky with color. I wondered where David and Ginger Twitchell were now, during this evening of national celebration. I wondered if from where they stood they could see the lights.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.