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Trial Ordered for Parents of Boy Who Starved

March 16, 1991

ALTOONA, Pa. (AP) _ A couple who shun medical care were ordered Friday to stand trial in the death of their 8-year-old son, who was rendered so weak from an easily- treatable infection that he starved.

Dennis Nixon, 35, and his wife, Lorie, 39, are charged with involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment. Their son Clayton died Jan. 6 suffering from ear and sinus infections.

Blair County Deputy Coroner Richard Goertz said he was called to the Nixon house an hour after the child died. He testified that he was told the child was so weak the day before he could not eat.

″He was emaciated, thin, malnourished. Just skin and bones,″ Goertz told District Justice Todd F. Kelly.

Clayton complained of an earache Christmas Eve and died less than two weeks later. His parents, members of the Faith Tabernacle Congregation, where Dennis Nixon’s father is pastor, sought no medical treatment for him.

Members of the church do not believe in seeking medical treatment, relying on prayer instead. Five Philadelphia children whose families also are members of the Faith Tabernacle Congregation died in a measles epidemic earlier this year.

Defense attorney Charles Wasovich called no witnesses during a 90-minute preliminary hearing. Outside the courtroom, he questioned whether the Nixons’ rights were being respected.

″There is a legal contradiction between religious freedom under the Constitution and the laws of the commonwealth,″ he said.

District Attorney William Haberstroh said state law requires parents to provide for their children.

″I do not believe that an 8-year-old child has the duty to be bound by the parents’ beliefs,″ he said. ″What the parents do (with their health), that’s their business.″

No trial date has been set.

During the hearing, a forensic pathologist testified the child weighed only 32 pounds at death. Dr. Harold Cottle said most 8-year-olds of Clayton’s build and 49-inch height weigh 45 to 65 pounds.

Internal organs appeared to be starved for water, the boys eyes had sunken in their sockets and fatty membranes from the child’s abdomen were missing, he said.

As Cottle described the autopsy, Mrs. Nixon, buried her head in her left hand and rubbed her eyes. Her husband watched the doctor intently.

Cottle said antibiotic treatment could have prevented the child from becoming seriously ill.

The pathologist said the boy would have suffered from significant pain, a headache, fever and a general malaise that any doctor would have been able to recognize.

″It would have been possible to make this diagnosis over the phone with the list of symptoms,″ Cottle said.

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