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Monday, January 03, 2005  

Media: Article favors Christian felon

There is a reason reporters need to maintain journalistic objectivity -- focusing on the facts of a situation instead of allowing their own beliefs to color what they are observing. Succumbing to such influences results in stories that do not accurately reflect what has occurred. I was reminded of that while reading a recent article about the Edwin Baxter case. Baxter is the man recently sentenced to prison after a conviction for cutting his eight-year-old son's penis with a hunting knife. He says God wanted him to circumcise the boy and his four other sons.

The Columbian reports.

Baxter and his 30-year-old wife have nine children in their two-bedroom home. His wife, Tammy, is pregnant and due in February.

. . .On Sept. 3, Baxter called his son into the bathroom and had him lay in what witnesses described as a dirty bathtub. Baxter used a hunting knife to slice into his son's foreskin. He called 911 when his son began bleeding profusely.

[Superior Court Judge James] Rulli said Baxter inflicted not only physical damage to his son, who received stitches, but probably also psychological damage.

On Dec. 7, a jury convicted Baxter of assault of a child in the second degree.

The Baxters previously resided in a survivalist compound in Idaho. They reject contemporary expectations in regard to the roles of men, women and children. Tammy Baxter has given birth to most of her children at home. The youngsters have rarely been allowed to attend school. Girls are required to wear dresses, boys trousers. Edwin Baxter had earlier encounters with child welfare workers and legal officials in regard to the children's chronic truancy and domestic abuse of his wife. The eleven-person clan lived in a two-bedroom rental cottage in rural Washington. They may have relocated to Washington to avoid authorities in Idaho. The wife again went on the run with the children to prevent child welfare and medical personnel from examining the boy injured in the assault. They have since returned to Ridgefield.

The situation seems clear. Baxter, who a mental health professional described as "mildy delusional," believed he could obtain God's approval by circumcising his sons. Pragmatic considerations such as his lack of medical training, the absence of a sterile environment and implements, and, the ages of the boys, were not considered. Baxter assaulted one of the children. The intent required for the crime -- mens rea -- is that he intend to cause bodily harm. It is not necessary that he subjectively believe his act to be harmful. Baxter's rationalization, that he was acting under orders from God, does not absolve him of responsibility. Indeed, if such a 'defense' were acceptable, it would give any defendant who claimed his religion moved him to commit an offense carte blanche.

Wendy Owen, writing for the Oregonian, doesn't get it. She visited the Baxter family and spoke with some of their relatives and friends. The result is a sympathetic portrayal that misses the point of the prosecution.

During his trial, Baxter, 33, said he was simply following Scripture through a God-commanded ritual performed innumerable times in history. But in the courtroom and among some public opinion, he has been branded a reckless fanatic, and spiritual leaders say his behavior follows a pattern of those who consider their acts to be in accordance with God's law -- despite being outside of the state's law.

. . .During his sentencing, Baxter acknowledged making a mistake, but at his trial he told the judge he was following God's laws.

"I felt it was an act of obedience that was spoken from the mouth of the self-existent creator," he said. "It breaks my heart to think . . . this state thinks it's child abuse when I was doing what other godly men . . . did."

Baxter was referring to Abraham and Joshua, who in the Old Testament were directed to ensure all males were circumcised.

Paragraphs of Owen's article are devoted to 'from the mouths of babes' support for Baxter.

Tammy Baxter said the boy has been checked by a doctor and is doing well, and the 8-year-old said he isn't mad at his father.

"I like him," he said shyly. Cuddled against his mother for support, he added, "I want him to come back home."

She intends to have all the boys circumcised by a doctor.

Meanwhile, the family misses their father.

His 9-year-old daughter summed up their feelings with a colorful crayon drawing. It depicts her, her siblings and her mother standing in row next to their house with tears rolling down their faces, watching police lead their father to a black-and-white squad car.

"We whant daddy and my daddy whants us," she wrote in red, purple and blue letters.

It never seems to cross Owen's mind that minor children are hardly in a position to understand the moral and legal aspects of Baxter's behavior. Instead, one is given the impression that an uppity government with no respect for religion has interfered in a situation that was fine the way it was. The article never mentions Baxter's previous conflicts with social services agencies and the law. Owen incorrectly states that he was not found to have mental health issues. Not only did an expert say Baxter is delusional, there was a finding of narcissism, a personality disorder that often leads to antisocial behavior.

I find myself thinking about previous sympathetic portrayals of persons of the far Right who come into conflict with the law. Readers in the Pacific Northwest will recall the McGuckins and the Christines. Nationally, Randy Weaver's defiance of the federal government at Ruby Ridge is a well-known example. Despite having instigated the conflict and slain a federal officer during the episode, Weaver, a ne'er-do-well white supremacist, eventually won a sizable legal settlement from a favorable jury. I suspect that people like Baxter and Weaver are portrayed positively by some reporters because they are seen as holding the 'traditional' values those reporters can relate to. Furthermore, they are not the Other -- foreign, nonwhite or non-Christian.

Perhaps Wendy Owen does not realize that bias crept into her portrayal of the Baxters. If she shares their fundamentalist beliefs to an extent, that is understandable, though not forgiveable. But, she does have a duty to be accurate. She failed in stating both the findings in regard to Baxter's mental health, and, in presenting a coherent account of why he was convicted. Her article is an example of the kinds of mistakes made when reporters surrender their journalistic objectivity.

Reasonably related

Brian and Ruth Christine recently lost appeals of their prison sentences. They say religious motivations led them to take their children from state custody at gunpoint. Their convictions are for robbery, custodial interference and auto theft. The Mail-Tribune has the story.

ROSEBURG — A judge has refused to reduce the prison sentence of a woman serving seven-and-a-half years in prison for helping her husband take their children at gunpoint from state child welfare workers at a freeway rest stop and flee to Montana.

Douglas County Circuit Judge William Lasswell ruled Wednesday there was no legal basis to reduce the sentence of Ruth Christine, who was convicted in 2002 of six counts of robbery, custodial interference and unauthorized use of a motor vehicle.

The judge came to the same conclusion last month on a motion from Christine’s husband, Brian, who was convicted on the same counts and is serving twelve-and-a-half years because he was the one who used the gun.

Read the rest.

6:30 PM