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Supreme Court upholds conviction of mother who didn't seek treatment for daughter's cancer

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NASHVILLE, Tennessee — The Tennessee Supreme Court disclosed Friday that it has affirmed the conviction of an East Tennessee woman for child neglect for failing to seek treatment for her teenage daughter's fatal cancer.

Jacqueline Crank had claimed she was innocent because she relied on prayer to heal the girl. Crank was sentenced to probation after her 15-year-old daughter died in 2002.

In Tennessee it is a crime to fail to provide medical care to children, but there is an exception for those who rely on prayer alone for healing. The exemption applies only to faith healing performed by an accredited practitioner of a recognized church or denomination.

Crank claimed that the exemption was too vague to give her fair warning that she could be prosecuted. The Supreme Court held that the law was not overly vague.

Last September, the high court heard oral arguments in the case.

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 said she relied on the advice of a man accredited by the Universal Life Church, which will accredit anyone who fills out an application.

In past briefs, Crank had argued 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.

Last year, Crank had argued 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."

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