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Prayerful parents in prison for death

Friday, June 01, 2001

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

HOLLIDAYSBURG, Pa. -- Dennis and Lorie Nixon went to prison yesterday, convicted of letting their teen-age daughter die, giving her prayers when the law said they should have gotten her medical help.

It is the start of a 2 1/2-to-five-year prison sentence, and it's a day that prosecutors asked for but that nobody really relished.

Here were the parents of a big, mannerly, tight-laced family -- easy-going folks who worked hard, shunned television and lived from the Bible -- and now, they were going to state prison.

At home, the Nixons leave 10 children, with two of them in their 20s tending a clutch ages 3 to 17.

"With the children, I don't think it's sunk in yet," said Dennis Nixon Jr., 25, suddenly head of a household that he will run with sister Jennifer, 20. "I'll need God's help. I've never run a family before."

Bewildering it might be, but not enough to make him let go of a resolute grip on the family beliefs.

"Why didn't we seek medical treatment? The answer is we didn't feel it's right because of our religion," he said yesterday in one of the few times during a five-year legal odyssey that family members have spoken publicly. "I'm not trying to persuade anybody to see things my way. I just have my beliefs, and I want to be accepted for them."

Then, quietly, came the assurance that his parents would be safe in so foreign a world as a state prison. Officials have not said in which prisons the Nixons will serve their sentences.

"If God has a reason for them being there," Nixon said, "God's going to take care of them."

The beliefs are a mainstay for members of Faith Tabernacle Congregation, a low-profile, closely-bound congregation in which Dennis and Lorie Nixon -- he's 45, she's 49 -- grew up. Dennis Nixon's father is pastor there.

A decade ago, those beliefs meant the death of the Nixon's 8-year-old son, consumed by what doctors testified was a treatable ear infection. Dennis and Lorie Nixon pleaded no contest to endangering the welfare of a child and were sentenced to 125 hours of community service.

In 1996, daughter Shannon Nixon, 16, died of diabetes acidosis, a treatable condition in which her blood sugar levels soared twelvefold. She opted for prayer over medicine, fell into a coma and died.

Prosecutors put the blame on Shannon's parents, rejecting arguments that the girl was old enough to make her own medical decisions and winning convictions for manslaughter and endangering the welfare of children.

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