On August 29, 2016, George Landell lived what could be his last day as a free man. A Gwinnett County father, Landell was charged with the felony murder of his 11-week-old daughter, Nevaeh, in March 2015. In an unusual case, Landell’s wife, Lauren Fristed, pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter in order to get a reduced prison sentence of ten years. She also agreed to testify against her husband, who claimed to be the head of the household and thus took responsibility for the child’s well-being. Superior Court Judge Ronnie Batchelor presided over the case.
Nevaeh died of a mix of starvation, malnourishment, swelling of the brain, and infections. This may seem like a straightforward murder case, but I would argue the trial was not so clear. George Landell and his wife believed fervently in prayer and divine intervention from God, even naming their child Heaven spelled backwards. Landell believed “God was their pediatrician” and nothing else was required to heal their child. He even believed sickness was a “spiritual attack” by a supernatural force. He prayed over Nevaeh before ever taking her to the hospital, but it proved to be too little, too late.
In court, the defense focused on Landell’s lack of knowledge mixed with poor advice. The couple’s spiritual adviser, Dwayne Murphy, testified that he had advised the newlyweds to mix water with the baby’s formula. When Landell did this, the formula formed a barrier on the walls within Nevaeh’s stomach that prevented the child from absorbing nutrients. Since neither Landell nor Fristed had other family acting as a support network, Murphy warned against doctors and medicine of the “natural world” versus that of the spiritual. The defense argued that Landell did not know what he was doing because of his inexperience as a parent. As Nevaeh grew thinner, the couple tried to feed her more and more. At times, Nevaeh turned blue and went cross-eyed. She became listless and others noticed the change in her appearance and behavior. Landell testified that he did not notice a difference in his child.
The prosecution argued that Landell knew exactly what he was doing and “maliciously” starved his child. The prosecutor said not only did Landell willfully deny his family medical care, but that he acted against his wife by sending her out of the room and away from Nevaeh. The prosecution claimed that by separating Fristed from her child, Landell essentially took all responsibility for Nevaeh and accepted the duty of providing the appropriate medical attention. The state said Fristed was “hysterical” and desperate, yet Landell and his spiritual adviser continued to pray instead of seeking medical attention.
Did he make bad choices? Yes. Did he fail to take care of his family? Absolutely, even he admitted as much. But did he intentionally starve his child? When the jury deliberated, they had to ask “Did he willfully and maliciously bring harm to Nevaeh?” If the answer was anything but an absolute “yes,” then they had a legal obligation to acquit Mr. Landell of all charges. Both first and second degree murder charges claim that the victim was intentionally harmed, the difference being first degree is premeditated murder, and second degree is murder without the intent of killing but includes malice against the victim.
The jury could not come to a decision on the first Friday of deliberations, but they returned on Monday August 29th. After deliberating for hours, the jury convicted Landell of second degree murder, and Judge Batchelor sentenced him to 20 years in jail and 10 years on parole. Landell received 10 more years in prison than Fristed, but avoided a longer sentence if he had been convicted of murder in the first degree. George Landell will spend the next 20 years behind bars because of the verdict reached by the jury.
— Michael Duckett is an Associate Editor of THE ARCH CONSERVATIVE
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