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Exorcist's brother says God claimed autistic boy's life, not defendant

Lisa Sweetingham
Court TV

MILWAUKEE, Wisconsin (Court TV) -- The brother of a minister on trial for suffocating an autistic child during an exorcism told jurors Thursday that it was God who "took" the child, not the defendant's intense ritual.

"I'm the pastor and God has ordained my brother to be an evangelist, he has the gift to cast out devils," David Hemphill testified.

Ray Hemphill, 47, who prayed and sang over 8-year-old Terrance Cottrell's chest as parishioners held him down on August 22, 2003, stands trial for felony physical child abuse. If convicted, he faces up to five years in prison.

On Thursday, the defense called David Hemphill, known as Bishop Hemphill to his flock. He is the pastor of the independent Faith Temple of the Apostolic Faith Church, which he founded in 1977. He also ordained his brother into the church.

A medical examiner ruled Terrance's death a homicide by asphyxiation, due to intense pressure on his chest.

Terrance, who was diagnosed with autism at age 2, hated to be touched and was often unable to express his needs, according to previous testimony. Terrance died after receiving the 12th in a series of prayer services from Ray Hemphill.

The boy's mother, Patricia Cooper, and two other female parishioners told investigators that they made the child lay on his back on the floor of the strip-mall based church. They then helped to restrain him while the defendant laid perpendicular across Terrance's chest for almost two hours, praying and whispering aspersions at the devil into the boy's ear.

David Hemphill, 63, was not in attendance that evening, but he told jurors he gave his brother permission to perform the exorcisms as an attempt to save the boy from what they believed was demonic possession.

"I've seen God heal some people, and then I've seen God didn't heal some. So all we're asked to do is to believe in the word of God," David Hemphill testified during direct examination by Hemphill's attorney, Thomas Harris.

Hemphill told jurors it was his church's belief that God sent Jesus to heal those who are sick, and in turn, several members of his church, have been given the "gift" of healing hands.

"Is there any sickness or disease that's too hard for God or believers [to heal]?" Harris asked.

"No, there's nothing too hard for God, and nothing too hard for his believers," Hemphill testified, adding that they only pray for sick people who ask to be healed.

In Terrance's case, his mother told investigators she joined the church several months before her son's death in the hope that appealing to a higher power would help him, as medication alone did not seem to be working.

Terrance had been taking the antipsychotic drug ziprasidone, also known as Geodon, at a dosage of 200 milligrams per day. The defense has asserted that it was the medication, not Hemphill's actions, that killed the boy.

God's work

A testy exchange on cross-examination began when prosecutor Mark Williams opened by asking, "Your church doesn't have a philosophy about hurting children does it?"

"No, sir," Hemphill said.

"And I assume it frowns on restraining children against their will ... lying on top of children so they can't move?" Williams said.

Hemphill said no one in his church would ever hurt a child, but that God did his work through them.

"My church is going to do exactly what the word of God tells us to do," he told jurors.

"So, you're saying God is giving you the power to take away" the prosecutor began to ask.

"I say, He has the power. If I lay down on someone and he passes away ? God took him, I didn't!" Hemphill interjected.

The prosecutor yelled back, "He did it to Terrance, didn't he? Your brother did it!"

"No, he didn't!" Hemphill said.

The boy's mother, in tears as she watched from the gallery, rushed out of the courtroom and could be heard sobbing in the hallway as family members tried to comfort her. Cooper is no longer attending services at her former church, and has been sitting behind the prosecution throughout the case.

Dueling experts

Jurors on Thursday also had to decide for themselves which side's expert witness was more credible, as two different toxicologists gave vastly different characterizations of the toxicity of the three drugs present in Terrance's system at the time of his death.

Based on toxicology reports, in addition to Geodon, Terrance also had over-the-counter medications dextromethorphan (a cough suppressant) and brompheniramine (an antihistamine) in his blood at elevated levels.

"You're already starting with a person whose brain is clearly shown to be abnormal and now you're putting all these chemicals in there trying to rearrange things -- it's a daunting task," said John Bederka, an expert for the defense.

"These substances are very active in terms of having an effect on [Terrance]," Bederka said.

The state's rebuttal toxicologist, Laura Liddicoat, disagreed, saying that the drugs played no part in his death.

She explained a phenomenon called postmortem drug redistribution, in which "drug concentrations migrate into the blood specimen so that when a sample is drawn at autopsy, those levels are falsely elevated."

Liddicoat said that this occurs in about 90 percent of postmortem toxicology tests.

On cross-examination, Liddicoat admitted that very little was known about the effects of Geodon on children, as no pediatric clinical trials have been done.

Prosecutor Williams had a second heated exchange with a defense witness when he cross-examined Bederka.

"Mr. Bederka, you read the police reports didn't you?" Williams asked.

"I think I did," Bederka said.

"You think you did?" Williams barked.

The prosecutor took issue with Bederka's claim that the drugs alone caused Terrance's death. Williams pointed to police statements from four witnesses, including the defendant, who stated he laid on the child in an 80-degree room for almost two hours during the exorcism.

"I find it hard to believe," Bederka said.

"You weren't there," Williams said. "If the defendant says that's what happened, we're going to have to believe him, isn't that correct?"

"No, not exactly," Bederka said, explaining that he did not believe that the boy was completely restrained for such a long period of time. "Try it, you can't even lie in bed for an hour without moving."

"You're saying you don't believe that statement?" the prosecutor said.

"There are parts that are probably correct and probably well-meaning," Bederka said. "But I can't see that happening for that period of time without any uptick, and how could the child live for an hour and a half if he was being crushed?"

Ray Hemphill, who has sat quietly beside his attorney and spoken in a soft voice whenever addressed by the judge, declined to testify. Attorneys will deliver closing arguments Friday morning.

Court TV is broadcasting the trial live.

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