Boy's death at church highlights prosecution issues

MILWAUKEE — MILWAUKEE - Terrance Cottrell Jr. died on the floor of a hot storefront church in a strip mall. The church members who held him down said they wanted to rid him of demons, but instead he died of asphyxiation.

He was 8.


Terrance, who was autistic, was supposed to start third-grade special education classes Tuesday morning. He will instead be buried here today.

As relatives and neighbors mourned the boy, some also denounced a prosecutor's plans as far too lenient.


Ray Anthony Hemphill, a preacher who led the spiritual healing service, has been charged with child abuse, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison.

No one else involved in the service, including the boy's mother, who helped to hold him down, has been charged.

Hemphill and church members held several sessions in which they prayed, sang and forced the boy to lie on the floor, holding down his feet, arms, head and chest when he struggled.

The prosecutors defend their decision to pursue abuse charges against Ray Hemphill, saying that under Wisconsin law they could not charge him with a more serious homicide crime without proving that he was aware that his actions could create a substantial risk to another person.

That would be difficult if not impossible to show, said Mark Williams, an assistant district attorney in Milwaukee.

But critics, including some legal scholars, said Terrance's case revealed prosecutors' general discomfort with trying to draw lines on matters of religion.

"If the child had died in a home, there'd be a whole array of charges, maybe including child abuse but also homicide or manslaughter," said Marci A. Hamilton, a professor at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in Manhattan.

The medical examiner found extensive bruising on the back of the boy's neck and said he died of mechanical asphyxiation from pressure on his chest.


About two hours into the praying and the struggling, Hemphill said, he got up, but Terrance was still.