No jury for religious group charged over death of girl
Rex Martinich |
A group of 14 people charged with killing an eight-year-old girl by denying her medical care will stand trial without a jury present due to the “notoriety” and complexity of the case.
Elizabeth Struhs died at the family home in Toowoomba, west of Brisbane, on January 7 of 2022 after her parents and 12 other members of a religious group called The Saints allegedly withheld her diabetes medication for six days.
Instead they prayed next to her and did not alert authorities as the girl’s health deteriorated, police say.
Elizabeth’s father, Jason Richard Struhs, and the leader of the religious group, Brendan Luke Stevens, have previously been indicted for murder while the other 12, including the child’s mother Kerrie Elizabeth Struhs, were indicted on a charge of manslaughter.
All 14 defendants appeared before Brisbane Supreme Court on Monday for a hearing on whether to grant the prosecution’s application for a judge-only trial.
The eight female defendants sat in the dock and six males sat in an area usually reserved for jury members, all under the supervision of 21 corrective services officers.
All defendants have been remanded in custody and have opted to represent themselves.
Crown prosecutor Todd Fuller said the case should not be heard in front of a jury for multiple reasons, including significant prior media coverage and the “notoriety of the matter” that could prejudice jury members.
“The underlying principle is the interests of justice, that they are entitled to a fair trial without bias or influence from articles about them,” he said.
Mr Fuller said it would be a lengthy trial and run for an estimated three months, with substantial medical evidence and 100 hours of footage from police interviews with the 14 defendants.
“If it was before a jury it would require a significant number of breaks to get through,” Mr Fuller said.
Mr Fuller said jury members might be swayed by emotion due to the nature of the allegations.
The 14 defendants have also demanded they all stand trial together.
Chief Justice Helen Bowskill said the 14 defendants had been allowed to meet and discuss the proposal for a judge-only trial as it would require their consent.
Jason Struhs told Justice Bowskill that he understood the concept of a trial without a jury.
“I don’t object. I agree,” Struhs said.
Steven said: “I accept. I don’t see a problem”.
The other 12 defendants all said they understood and consented to a judge-only trial.
The other defendants are Zachary Alan Struhs, Loretta Mary Stevens, Therese Maria Stevens, Andrea Louise Stevens, Acacia Naree Stevens, Camellia Claire Stevens, Alexander Francis Stevens, Sebastian James Stevens, Keita Courtney Martin, Lachlan Stuart Schoenfisch and Samantha Emily Schoenfisch.
Justice Bowskill said hearing the trial without a jury would lessen the legal and logistical challenges and was “in the public interest”.
The pre-trial hearing was adjourned, with the start date for the trial itself yet to be determined.AAP