The 8-year-old autistic boy who died during a weekend prayer service suffocated after a church elder sat on his chest, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports. The Milwaukee County medical examiner’s office has ruled the death a homicide.
Ray Hemphill, sat on the chest of Terrance Cottrell Jr., 8, during a prayer service Friday for the autistic boy, police say. Terrance suffocated, according to the medical examiner’s office.
But prosecutors Monday said state laws about religious healing practices are complicating decisions about whether to charge the man accused of being involved. Though police say the elder told them he sat on the boy’s chest, a woman who participated in the fatal prayer session said he had only lain across it.
Terrance Cottrell Jr. died Friday night at the Faith Temple Church of the Apostolic Faith on Milwaukee’s northwest side. The cause was “mechanical asphyxia due to external chest compression,” according to the medical examiner’s office.
Church leaders and a neighbor had identified the boy as Torrance Cantrell over the weekend, when police would not confirm his identity. Monday, the boy’s father and the medical examiner provided the corrected spelling of his name.
A high-ranking Milwaukee police source said Ray Hemphill told investigators that he would sit on the boy’s chest for up to two hours at a time during prayer services at the small storefront church at 8709 W. Fond du Lac Ave. The nightly prayer services started three weeks ago, police say Hemphill told them.
According to the jail records, Hemphill, who was arrested Saturday, weighs 157 pounds. The boy’s weight was unknown.
Hemphill, 45, is being held on suspicion of physical abuse of a child, a felony. Milwaukee police Capt. Nan Hegerty said Monday that she does not expect anyone else to be arrested in the case.
District Attorney E. Michael McCann said Monday he and other prosecutors met with Medical Examiner Jeffrey Jentzen to review the case.
The fact that Terrance died during what the participants called a prayer service adds legal complications, McCann said.
“The statutes have usually arisen in the context of non-treatment where simply prayer was used,” McCann said.
Wisconsin law makes it a felony to intentionally cause bodily harm to a child. But a subsection reads: “TREATMENT THROUGH PRAYER. A person is not guilty of an offense under this section solely because he or she provides a child with treatment by spiritual means through prayer alone for healing in accordance with the religious method of healing permitted” under other statutes “in lieu of medical or surgical treatment.”
The allegations of physical restraint are the legal wrinkle, McCann said. David Hemphill has said sheets were used to help control the boy during the healing.
Another section reads that a determination of abuse or neglect “may not be based solely on the fact that the child’s parent, guardian or legal custodian in good faith selects and relies on prayer or other religious means for treatment of disease or for remedial care of the child.”