Judge: Man cannot stand in for woman in breast-feeding driver trial

By KRISTEN GELINEAU, Associated Press Writer

RAVENNA, Ohio (AP) - A man cannot stand in for his wife at her trial for breast-feeding their baby while driving on the Ohio Turnpike, a judge said Wednesday.

Brad Lee Barnhill requested that he be prosecuted on a several misdemeanor charges because his religious belief is that he is the only one who can punish Catherine Nicole Donkers. Portage County Municipal Court Judge Donald Martell dismissed his request and said Donkers must stand trial on her own.

Martell at first appeared frustrated with Donkers during the opening of the trial where the 29-year-old spoke and stood only after Barnhill gave her permission from the first row of the audience.

Donkers refused her appointed public defender and read a list of witnesses she planned to call, including Barnhill and her mother.

As the judge instructed witnesses to leave the court room, Donkers said she left a key witness off the list: the state of Ohio.

"I'm not sure we have room in the hallway," Martell said as he raised his eyebrows and let out a laugh.

The prosecution's first witness, truck driver George Barrett of Syracuse, N.Y., testified he called 911 on May 8 to report seeing a woman driving with a baby on her lap.

"I could not believe what I saw," Barrett said.

Over repeated objections by prosecutors, Donkers suggested during her questioning of Barrett that he had broken the law by reporting her because he did not know the details of Ohio's seat belt laws.

Donkers also questioned Barrett's memory, saying his testimony about the make of car and license plate number were incorrect.

During a recess, Barrett said he was watching out for the baby.

"I've seen too many body bags. I've seen too many white sheets," he said.

While watching a videotape of Trooper Adam Doles' pursuit of her car, tears slid down Donkers' face. Doles testified that Donkers slowed down but did not stop for several miles. The tape showed Donkers eventually stopping at a toll booth and the trooper saying to her, "You've got a baby in your lap. You know how unsafe that is?"

Donkers acknowledges that she was breast-feeding her 7-month-old daughter while driving.

But Donkers, a member of a religious group that has a history of challenging state laws, believes she's done nothing wrong.

When talking about the case, Donkers and Barnhill often refer to their membership in the First Christian Fellowship for Eternal Sovereignty, an organization founded in Henderson, Nev., in the 1990s. It pledges allegiance to Jesus Christ and at times takes a dim view of the federal government. Barnhill says he is a minister in the fellowship with 650 followers.

Donkers is charged with misdemeanor counts of child endangering, failure to comply with the order of a police officer, driving without a license and several other driving infractions.

In court filings, the couple says neither has a Social Security number, they think it's wrong to be required to have driver's licenses and they do not have a marriage license, although they say they are husband and wife.

Barnhill said the couple was living temporarily in Pittsburgh for work, but Donkers was a resident of Michigan when arrested.

Michigan and Ohio require children under age 4 to be in child-restraint systems while traveling in cars, but Michigan excludes children being nursed.

Barnhill said Michigan's exclusion should mean Donkers was stopped improperly.

A conviction for misdemeanor child endangering carries maximum penalties of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)