A vegan couple accused of starving their infant to death were hammered with a malice murder conviction Wednesday, the same charge the defendants would have faced had they put a gun to their child's temple and pulled the trigger.
Fulton prosecutor Chuck Boring said the precedent-setting verdict isn't a condemnation of veganism, a strict form of vegetarianism that does not allow the consumption or use of animal products. Instead, jurors believed prosecutors' assertions that the couple intentionally neglected and underfed the child and then tried to use the lifestyle as a shield.
The infant was born in the bathtub of a Buckhead apartment, but never taken to a doctor. The 6-week-old was dead when his parents took him to Piedmont Hospital, across the street from their apartment, on April 25, 2004. He weighed 3 1/2 pounds and was so emaciated that doctors could count his bones through his skin.
This is the first known verdict of its kind in Georgia. A New York jury also convicted a vegan couple on murder charges in the death of their child. But a Florida jury was more lenient, acquitting vegan parents of murder and instead convicting them on reduced charges of involuntary manslaughter, an unintentional death. In that case, the couple had successfully raised two children as vegans, but their third child died.
"The vegan diet is fine, " Boring said after the verdict in the Georgia case. "These parents lied about what they fed him. He just was not fed enough."
The Atlanta mother, Jade Sanders, 27, initially told police she fed her baby organic apple juice and soy milk. But the soy milk containers in her Buckhead apartment clearly state that soy milk is not to be used as a substitute for baby formula, her lawyer admitted.
At trial, the mother said she also fed her son breast milk and soy milk formula.
The father, Lamont Thomas, 31, buried his face in his hands at the defense table after hearing the verdicts that would send him and his girlfriend to prison with automatic life sentences. The judge might tack on more prison time at a sentence hearing next week.
The courtroom was so quiet after the judge read the rare verdict that the clank of the handcuffs a deputy fastened around the couple's wrists echoed throughout the room.
"We're going to jail for no reason, " the father told visiting senior Superior Court Judge L.A. McConnell before being led out of the courtroom by deputies. "We didn't starve our son for weeks and weeks."
Sanders' and Thomas' mothers sat silently, wiping at tears.
Thomas' attorney, Brandon Lewis, turned to the moms and vowed to appeal: "I want you to remember, it's far from being over."
Outside the courtroom, Lewis said he believes the parents unintentionally starved their child by giving him apple juice, which worked as a diuretic and blocked the absorption of nutrients from the soy milk, soy formula and breast milk. They never took Crown to a doctor because they feared hospitals were infested with germs, he said.
At trial, government witness and vegan expert Amy Lanou told jurors the child's health may have been compromised by his diet, but he still should have been alive if fed enough food.
Lanou, a nutritionist who authored the book "Healthy Eating for Life for Children, " on raising children as vegans, said all parents should know that babies need adequate amounts of breast milk or formula.
Prosecutors Boring and Mike Carlson convinced jurors that the neglect was intentional.
Boring said outside the courtroom that he'd always be haunted by this case. "I'll never understand why, " he said.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.