By M.R. KROPKO, Associated Press Writer
RAVENNA, Ohio (AP) - A woman who breast-fed her baby while driving on the Ohio Turnpike was found innocent Friday of child endangerment, but was convicted of three lesser charges.
Catherine Nicole Donkers, a member of an obscure religious sect with a history of challenging state laws, said her 7-month-old daughter was not in danger when she nursed her while driving 65 mph on May 8 in northeast Ohio.
Portage County Municipal Court Judge Donald Martell said his ruling reflected state troopers' testimony that they only saw Donkers holding the baby, not breast-feeding.
Donkers, 29, was found guilty of violating child-restraint laws, fleeing police and driving without a valid driver's license.
Prosecutors recommended Donkers be sentenced to 30 days in jail and pay a $500 fine instead of the maximum one year in jail and $2,000.
Martell told Donkers (pictured, above) he would postpone sentencing to first investigate "because I feel I need to know more about you." No date was set.
Donkers, who represented herself, was calm as Martell issued his swift ruling just after closing arguments in the three-day trial.
Donkers said her husband, Brad Lee Barnhill, told her to nurse while driving from Pennsylvania to Michigan. When she pulled over after a three-mile pursuit, she handed over a homemade identification card instead of a license and only cooperated with troopers after getting permission on a cell phone from Barnhill.
After the ruling, Barnhill said Martell was fair.
"He doesn't know us. He wants to know more about us. I think his concern is that this doesn't happen again," Barnhill said.
In her closing argument, Donkers said she did nothing wrong and was following her husband's orders. The judge earlier denied Barnhill's request to stand in at trial for his wife.
"We are people who do not shirk from facing the consequences of our actions. I pray that this court respects my faith," Donkers said.
The couple, who lack a marriage license but claim to be married, belong to the First Christian Fellowship for Eternal Sovereignty.
They say their religion requires Barnhill to be responsible for punishing Donkers.
The organization, which pledges allegiance to Jesus Christ, was founded in Henderson, Nev., in the 1990s. Barnhill says he is a minister in the fellowship with 650 followers.
Donkers argued that as a Michigan resident, she was entitled under that state's child restraint law to breast-feed while driving, even though she was driving in Ohio when she was stopped in May. Child restraint laws in Michigan exempt nursing babies.
Assistant prosecutor Sean Scahill said the baby could have been killed even in the case of a minor accident.
"She placed that infant between herself and the steering wheel, between herself and the air bag," Scahill said.
Donkers said Thursday that for a short time she took both hands off the wheel to move the 7-month-old girl while the car drove in cruise control at 65 mph.
"I don't believe there was any form of recklessness," she said.
Barnhill said the couple was living temporarily in Pittsburgh for work, but Donkers was a resident of Livonia, Mich., when arrested.