Religious group refuses to plead in girl’s death trial

Rex Martinich |

Fourteen members of a religious group are on trial for murder or manslaughter of a girl.
Fourteen members of a religious group are on trial for murder or manslaughter of a girl.

All 14 religious group members charged over the death of an eight-year-old girl have refused to enter pleas at the start of their trial for murder or manslaughter.

The six men and eight women appeared before the Brisbane Supreme Court on Wednesday for the start of the trial that is scheduled to take up to two months.

The defendants did not bow to Justice Martin Burns when he entered, as is the usual courtesy for defendants, prosecutors, barristers and members of the public attending court.

Elizabeth Struhs died at the family home in Toowoomba, west of Brisbane, on January 7, 2023 after her parents and 12 others 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 claimed.

Elizabeth’s body was found in the Rangeville home on January 8.

The girl’s father, Jason Richard Struhs, said “no plea, Your Honour” when formally arraigned on a charge of murder on Wednesday.

Justice Burns entered a plea of not guilty on his behalf.

The group’s leader, Brendan Luke Stevens, said “I enter no plea” when he was next to be arraigned on a murder charge.

Justice Burns entered a plea of not guilty for Stevens and for the girl’s mother, Kerrie Elizabeth Struhs, who said “no plea” in response to a manslaughter charge.

The judge entered not guilty pleas for the other 11 defendants as they said either “I enter no plea” or “no plea” to their charges of manslaughter.

All defendants were clad in jail-issue uniforms, with the men wearing light prison tracksuits and thongs and the women wearing blue shirts and trousers with socks and sandals.

The prosecution was previously granted a judge-only trial after arguing the case should not be heard in front of a jury due to significant prior media coverage and the “notoriety of the matter” that could prejudice jury members.

The defendants, all of whom are representing themselves at trial, were granted a four-hour meeting in a closed courtroom on Wednesday morning to discuss their defence.

A courtroom was modified specifically for the trial, with the dock and one row of public gallery seats removed to allow two rows of tables and chairs for the defendants.

Some of the defendants had previously complained about the difficulty of holding confidential meetings about their case while in custody but none have applied for bail.

At prior hearings the defendants did not request laptops to view evidence in court but, instead sought alternative pens to the flexible variety provided.

Crown prosecutor Caroline Marco previously said there were 60 witnesses planned along with 76 hours of recorded conversations that would take three weeks to play in court.

The other accused 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.

The youngest was 20 years old when charged while the eldest was 66.

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AAP