Couple found guilty of starving son

Michelle Staats found not guilty of more serious charge

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From left, Prosecuting Attorney Angus Lee defense attorney Douglas Phelps, Robert Staats, Michelle Staats and defense attorney Stephen Hormel.

EPHRATA - Grant County Superior Court Judge Evan Sperline said Robert and Michelle Staats are guilty of starving their 2-year-old son, Elijah, to the brink of death.

"The parents' conduct withheld food from this child. He didn't get enough food," he said moments before finding the couple guilty of second-degree criminal mistreatment. He found Michelle Staats not guilty of the more serious charge of first-degree criminal mistreatment.

About the first-degree charge Sperline said, "I believe that if three people looked at the set of facts in this case, they would come to three different conclusions."

The case came to light in May 2012 when Robert and Michelle Staats called 9-1-1 when their son went into cardiac arrest. Prosecutor Angus Lee quoted a physician who said the child weighed about 10 pounds and was severely malnourished.

Michelle Staats' attorney, Robert Hormel, said that the couple used the best information available to treat their son's ailing health, including prayer, advice from family and advice from a San Francisco-based herbalist, who only corresponded with the family through e-mail and telephone conversations.

Prosecutors showed evidence from Women, Infant and Children food and nutrition services that when Michelle brought Elijah to their center for advice, she was told to seek professional medical care.

When she instead sought the advice from Elizabeth Trautman, a Moses Lake naturopath, prosecutors showed evidence that Trautman told her Elijah was in serious need for medical aid.

Michelle Staats instead went to the Internet and found a San Francisco-based herbalist who practiced East Asian medicine. Elijah continued to lose weight.

"During the time in his life when he should be gaining the most weight in his life, he went from 25 pounds to 10 pounds," Sperline said during his ruling.

As a result of the malnourishment, Elijah has a severe mental handicap and is no longer living with the couple.

Sperline flatly rejected the "they did the best they could" argument and found the couple guilty of negligent behavior.

The Staats' attorneys also argued their religious beliefs prevented them from seeking traditional Western medical care.

Sperline called that argument a red herring. He said that it did not matter what the family believed, only what they did.

"What if the parents didn't believe in living in houses and wanted to live at the top of a 100 foot tree and a child, not tethered or anything, fell out of that tree?"

The Staats' attorney said the couple has four other children who they raised using the same methods, and they are healthy and doing well in school.

Lee said that the couple was "blessed" to have four healthy children, but that did not discount their negligent behavior.

During court, Lee said Elijah was living in western Washington at some type of medical facility and his parents tried to visit him weekly. Elijah is basically brain dead, Lee said.

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