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Couple Found Guilty of Murder in Son’s Starvation Death

September 9, 1989 GMT

WILKES-BARRE, Pa. (AP) _ A couple convicted of third-degree murder for starving their 14-year-old son plan to appeal on the ground their children’s religious beliefs may take precedence over parental responsibility.

″One of the major issues in this case, which we were not allowed to argue in front of the jury, was the children’s constitutional rights to exercise their religious beliefs and whether that right exceeds the parental duty,″ said Al Flora Jr., one of the couple’s lawyers.

Eric Cottam died Jan. 3 after the family went without food for six weeks despite nearly $4,000 saved as a tithe for God. Larry and Leona Cottams’ 12- year-old daughter, Laura, recovered from malnourishment and is in foster care.

In addition to third-degree murder, which required a jury finding of malice on the part of Cottam, 39, and Mrs. Cottam, 38, the couple were found guilty Friday of reckless endangerment and endangering the welfare of children.

The Cottams held hands and showed no emotion as the verdicts were read. Jurors had deliberated 1 3/4 hours.

The Cottams didn’t eat for six weeks beginning Nov. 22 despite $3,775 saved as a tithe, or offering, for God. Larry Cottam, a former Seventh-day Adventist pastor, said he believed using the money would have been akin to stealing.

Laura Cottam testified she had several dollars saved as a tithe, but also believed spending the money for food would have been the same as stealing.

Luzerne County Judge Gifford S. Cappelini decided not to allow use of the children’s First Amendment rights to religious freedom as a defense because they still lived in their parents’ care.

″I think their parental duty is paramount,″ Cappellini told The Associated Press.

Flora said he planned to appeal.

″The issue of whether the children could exercise their own religious beliefs ... gets into some significant First Amendment issues that have not been decided in this country,″ said Joseph Cosgrove, co-counsel for the Cottams.

Eleanor Culpepper, a juror, said seeing pictures of the teen-age boy’s body weighed heavily on the jury. Eric was 5 feet 9 inches tall and weighed 69 pounds when he died Jan. 3.

″It’s kind of hard to believe,″ the Philadelphia nurse said.

Assistant District Attorney Thomas Marsilio said previous convictions in starvation cases in Pennsylvania had never risen above involuntary manslaughter.

The Cottams remained free on $50,000 bail each. An anonymous benefactor posted bail for them Aug. 23 after they spent 230 days in custody following their Jan. 5 arraignment.

No sentencing date has been set pending post-trial motions. The Cottams face a maximum 28 years in prison.

Eric Cottam died in an upstairs bedroom of the family’s modest two-story home in Nuangola, just south of this northeastern Pennsylvania city.

A day later, Larry Cottam notified police. Larry, Leona and Laura Cottam required hospitalization for malnutrition.

Flora said during the two-week trial that the reclusive family went without food because they distrusted authorities and believed God would rescue them. They also believed their children would be taken away from them if they sought help, he said.

″It was a situation where you had a family that, in a sense, lost touch with reality,″ Flora said.

During the trial, Flora said the family became alienated from society in 1984 after their children alleged they had been sexually abused by adults, including their paternal grandparents - who denied the claims - as well as a Seventh-day Advenist leader and church officials at the Seventh-day Adventist school near their home.