NASHVILLE — An East Tennessee woman convicted of child neglect in her teenage daughter's cancer death is asking the state Supreme Court to declare that she is innocent because she relied on prayer to heal the girl.
Jacqueline Crank was sentenced to unsupervised probation after her 15-year-old daughter died of Ewing's Sarcoma in 2002. Despite the light sentence, Crank has continued to pursue the case, arguing that faith-healing should be legal for everyone.
The Tennessee Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case in Knoxville on Thursday.
State law makes it a crime to fail to provide medical care to children, but there is an exception for those who rely on prayer alone for healing. However, the Spiritual Treatment Exemption Act applies only to faith healing performed by an accredited practitioner of a recognized church or religious denomination.
In turning to prayer for her daughter's healing, Crank relied on the advice of Ariel Ben Sherman, who called himself the girl's "spiritual father." Testimony showed Sherman was accredited by the Universal Life Church, which will accredit anyone who fills out an application.
Records from the Department of Children's Services said Crank and her children lived "in a cult type religious environment with many people (estimated 30) living in their home and all of whom they consider 'family,' although none are actually related."
In briefs, Crank argues that Tennessee's Spiritual Treatment Exemption Act is unconstitutional because it treats some faith healing as legitimate while allowing other faith healing to be criminalized.
The state Court of Criminal Appeals ruled against Crank in 2013, saying that even if the state's faith healing law were unconstitutional, striking it down would not undo Crank's conviction. It would simply erase the exceptions for faith healing, leaving the law intact that makes it illegal not to seek medical treatment for a child.
Crank argues in a brief to the state Supreme Court that simply deleting the faith healing exemption would have the effect of punishing her for an act of which she is innocent.
Crank initially was charged with a felony. Those charges were later downgraded after doctors said that her daughter Jessica most likely would have died even if she had gone to a hospital right away. Jessica was eventually taken into the custody of the Department of Children's Services and admitted to East Tennessee Children's Hospital.
According to court records, the cancer caused a grapefruit-sized tumor on the girl's shoulder that appeared to give her severe pain.
Pediatric oncologist Dr. Victoria Castaneda testified that while Jessica likely could not have been cured by early treatment, "it would have helped in dealing with her condition and symptoms and positively impacted the quality of her life."
Sherman was convicted with Crank of misdemeanor neglect in 2012. Both appealed the conviction, but before the appeal was complete, Sherman died. Records showed he was suffering from cancer and had sought medical help for himself, dying in a hospital.