Barnhill's bride: Wife escapes endangerment charge

The husband in this case, a former area resident, made headlines in 1996 for refusing to undergo a background check in order to become a coach with SOCA, the Soccer Organization of Charlottesville Albemarle. A libertarian with some political aspirations, Barnhill cited philosophical reasons. –ed.

A woman who said she was following her husband's orders by nursing their infant while driving was found innocent of child endangerment but convicted of three other charges in Ravenna, Ohio.

Catherine Nicole Donkers, 29, was found guilty Friday, August 8, of violating child-restraint laws, driving without a valid driver's license, and fleeing police.

Portage County Municipal Court Judge Donald Martell did not set a sentencing date, saying he wanted time to investigate Donkers.

"I feel I need to know more about you,'' the judge said.

Prosecutors recommended Donkers be sentenced to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine instead of the maximum one year in jail and $2,000 fine. All four charges are misdemeanors. The child-restraint charge carries a fine of up to $100.

Donkers faced up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine if convicted of child endangerment.

She said her husband, Brad Lee Barnhill, ordered her by cell phone to breast-feed their 7-month-old daughter while she drove on the Ohio Turnpike from Pennsylvania to Michigan on May 8.

Donkers, who represented herself in the three-day trial, said she did nothing wrong because the couple's religious beliefs require Barnhill to be responsible for directing his wife's decisions and whether she should be punished.

The couple belongs to the First Christian Fellowship for Eternal Sovereignty, which has a history of challenging the government.

"We are people who do not shirk from facing the consequences of our actions. I pray that this court respects my faith,'' Donkers said in closing arguments.

Police stopped Donkers after a trucker called 911 to report he had seen a woman driver holding a baby on her lap. Donkers refused to pull over for three miles as a state trooper pursued her.

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. Child restraint laws in Michigan exempt nursing babies.

But prosecutor Sean Scahill said Donkers should be punished for endangering the child's life because the baby could have been killed even in 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 she took her hands off the wheel for a short time to move the baby as the car drove in cruise control at 65 mph.

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.

The judge said he was concerned about whether Donkers cared more about her religious views than the welfare of her child.

"It seems to me that perhaps your priorities are mixed up,'' he said. ``I find that difficult.''