Trial begins for religious sect accused of killing child

Members of an Australian religious group have gone on trial accused of killing an eight-year-old diabetic girl by denying her medical care and offering prayer instead.

Elizabeth Struhs was found dead at a home in Toowoomba – about 125km (78 mi) west of Brisbane – in January 2022, after she had allegedly gone without insulin for several days.

Prosecutors say the sect shunned the use of medicine and trusted God to “heal” the child – “extreme beliefs” which had already almost ended Elizabeth’s life in similar circumstances three years before.

The girl’s parents are among the 14 defendants, all of whom have refused lawyers.

They have also all opted to enter no pleas on the charges. Formally, the court considers that a plea of not guilty.

Two men – Elizabeth’s father Jason Struhs, 52, and the religious group’s leader Brendan Stevens, 62 – have been charged with murder, with prosecutors saying they knew the group’s actions would likely kill Elizabeth.

The girl’s mother, Kerrie Struhs, 49, brother Zachary Struhs, 21, and ten others – aged 22 to 67 – are accused of manslaughter.

As the trial began at the Queensland Supreme Court on Wednesday, the group filed in one by one, clad in prison clothes, taking their allocated positions in a courtroom specifically modified to fit them all.

Due to the complexity and notoriety of the case, the trial is being heard by a judge only – no jury – and is expected to last for around three months.

When opening her case, prosecutor Caroline Marco said Elizabeth had been an “intelligent, spiritual child”.

“But [she was] too young to understand the dire consequences of her parents’ decision… which she ultimately paid for with her own life.”

Ms Marco alleged that in early January 2022, both parents made the decision to first reduce the amount of insulin given to their daughter, and then withdraw it completely.

Members of the sect then gathered at the home to pray, she said, and it was “visible to all who saw her” that Elizabeth’s health was in danger. But there was “no attempt” to get a doctor.

She later died after having “suffered for days” , said the prosecutor.

The court heard Mrs Struhs had only been out of prison for a few weeks, after being convicted of failing to provide insulin to her daughter on another occasion in 2019.

That time, the girl spent a month in hospital after medical treatment was eventually sought by her father.

Jason Struhs previously had not agreed with the group’s beliefs, the judge was told, but had been baptised while his wife was in prison.

“He knew if he did not change he would lose his family and wife so pushed aside convictions of faith he once held, and joined them,” Ms Marco said.

Over the course of the trial, the court would hear from 60 witnesses including one of the Struhs’ daughters, who is estranged from the family, Ms Marco said.

The evidence, she added, would paint a picture of a small and “insular” religious group which centred around Brendan Stevens.

Prosecutors will continue laying out their arguments on Thursday, after which the defendants will also have the opportunity to address the court.

Before the trial began, Justice Martin Burn said stressed that he was obliged to provide sufficient information to ensure they got a fair trial, but could not provide them with legal advice.

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