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Husband told her to nurse and drive, wife testifies

Friday, August 08, 2003

By M.R. Kropko, The Associated Press

RAVENNA, Ohio -- A former Bethel Park woman on trial for breast-feeding her baby while driving on the Ohio Turnpike testified yesterday that she nursed behind the wheel because her husband told her to do it.

Brad Barnhill comforts his wife, Catherine Donkers, after they read Bible passage together during a recess in her trial on misdemeanor charges for breast-feeding their baby while driving on the Ohio Turnpike. The couple were residents of Bethel Park at the time of the arrest. (Tony Dejak, Associated Press)
Click photo for larger image.

Catherine Nicole Donkers, 29, said she had stopped earlier on May 8 at a highway rest stop and fed cereal to her 7-month-old daughter. Donkers said she realized the baby was still hungry after she got back on the road, headed to Michigan from their home in suburban Pittsburgh.

"I called my husband, and he directed me to continue on, to drive to Michigan and nurse my child in the car. We did not feel we were breaking any law," Donkers said. "I had the cruise control on at 65 mph."

Donkers, who is representing herself on several misdemeanor charges, called herself to the witness stand and talked yesterday afternoon for more than an hour in Portage County Municipal Court.

Breast-feeding while driving "certainly isn't a primary choice as a form of feeding my child," she said. "I certainly had no intent to harm my child. I never would."

Closing arguments were scheduled for today.

Prosecutor Sean Scahill asked Donkers if she had to use her hands to move the baby while the car was moving. At first, she said no but then said she moved the child from one side to another.

"I used both hands. For a very short time I did. It took me approximately all of a quarter of a second," she said.

Brad Lee Barnhill has said he told his wife to nurse while driving to save time.

"I directed you to do what I thought was in your best interest," Barnhill told Donkers when he testified earlier yesterday.

On Wednesday, Barnhill was denied his request to stand in for his wife at the trial. The couple belongs to a religious group they say requires Barnhill to be responsible for punishing Donkers.

Catherine Donkers and her daughter, Seren Barnhill, leave the Portage County Courthouse in Ravenna, Ohio, after court recessed for the day. Behind them is Seren Barnhill's grandmother. (Tony Dejak, Associated Press)
Click photo for larger image.

Barnhill, 46, said he and Donkers were in constant communication as she drove. She was stopped after a trucker called 911 to report he had seen a woman driver holding a baby on her lap.

Donkers refused to pull over for three miles as a state trooper pursued her. When she eventually stopped at a Streetsboro toll booth, troopers said she refused to cooperate until she called her husband for permission.

The couple says Donkers did not stop immediately because she didn't realize right away she was being followed and she wanted to stop at a public place because she had been assaulted by police before.

State Highway Patrol Sgt. Michael A. Harmon testified that Donkers handed over what appeared to be a homemade Pennsylvania identification card instead of a driver's license.

Donkers -- a member of an obscure religious sect that maintains that driver's licenses should not be required -- described the card as an affidavit, Harmon said.

The couple -- who lack a marriage license but claim to be married -- belong to the First Christian Fellowship for Eternal Sovereignty, which has a history of challenging state laws.

The organization, which pledges allegiance to Jesus Christ, was founded in Henderson, Nev., in the 1990s. Barnhill says he is a minister in the fellowship with 650 followers.

Donkers is charged with child endangering, driving without a license, failure to use child restraint equipment and operating a vehicle while willfully eluding police. She faces six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

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