Nasons acquitted of manslaughter; guilty of forgery, racketeering
By Eric Dolson
In an overcrowded court room, Diane and Dennis Nason were acquitted on November 22, 1995, of charges that they contributed to the deaths of three of their children, physically abused and neglected others and stole from contributors to their nationally recognized "Celebration Family."
All seats were filled by about 9:30 a.m. and it was standing room only when the verdict was read shortly after 10 a.m. Present were former Nason children who had accused their parents of misdeeds, supporters of those children, Nason children in support of their parents, family friends, armed deputies and the press.
On a grim anniversary, the trial ended two years to the day after it started and 10 years to the week after adopted children Jason and Jodi Nason died of complications from the bacterial disease shigella, deaths which figured prominently in the prosecution of the Nasons.
The jury deadlocked on the manslaughter charge against Diane Nason for Jason's death, acquitted Dennis of that charge and acquitted both Nasons of manslaughter in the deaths of Jodi and another child, Natasha Nason, who died in 1988.
Both Dennis and Diane Nason were convicted of forging signatures to medical certificates and adoption papers when they were trying to send children elsewhere in 1991 after backers withdrew financial support, Diane's health failed and the family began to implode.
Diane and Dennis were also convicted of "racketeering" because of these forgeries, but defenders of the Nasons say this was misuse of a law that was designed to combat organized crime such as drug cartels.
"She (prosecutor Kathleen Payne-Pruitt) is guilty of racketeering against the Nasons," said a one-time major contributor, of the charge.
It was reported in The Bulletin that some jurors were also troubled, feeling they had to find the Nasons guilty of racketeering because of the way the law was presented to the jury.
Diane was also convicted of falsifying stool samples given to the Deschutes County Health Department which was trying to control the shigella disease in her home.
It was the longest jury trial in Oregon history, possibly the most expensive at about $2 million, and the ending was just as tangled as everything else about this family of 60 or 70 children living in the large farmhouse five miles east of Sisters.
Staunch defenders of the Nasons feel vindicated because the state lost its primary argument that the Nasons abused and neglected their children.
Those who feel that Diane Nason in particular did not provide a mother's love and devotion to the more than 70 disadvantaged and crippled children she adopted from around the world, but instead used these children to feed a need for adulation and fame were glad at least that the Nasons did not walk out of the courthouse in Bend completely free.
This polarity extended even to the media. On Wednesday afternoon, The Bulletin in Bend ran the headline: "Nasons cleared of abuse, manslaughter." On Thursday morning, The Oregonian ran the headline: "A family's long fall." On Thursday afternoon, The Bulletin ran another pair of stories on page one, the first titled "Nasons celebrate end of long ordeal," and the second, "Nasons sentence could be probation."
Although Nason attorneys Valerie Wright and David Glenn were calling the final verdict a clear victory, the Nason trial had no winners.
Dennis Nason said it was primarily the manslaughter and neglect charges he cared about, but four years in court for custody hearings and fighting the criminal charges have wiped out the family financially.
The state has garnished Dennis' wages to pay for the care of children taken from the family, allowing Dennis in some months to take home from the local hardware store where he works less than their monthly rent, according to Diane.
It has been reported that there are children who left the family who are now in counseling, damaged nearly beyond repair from life in the Nason home.
Prosecutor Payne-Pruitt, who spent nearly two years in preparation and prosecution, lost the centerpiece charges in a case that has received national attention.
She won the counts of forgery, but Payne-Pruitt did not prove the manslaughter and neglect charges, accusations that represented the threats to children, what Deschutes County District Attorney Mike Dugan said was the point of it all.
Payne-Pruitt won the racketeering charge, which is her specialty, but it was reported in The Bulletin that jurors accepted that charge reluctantly, and did not believe the Nasons to be "racketeers."
As the verdicts were read, Diane and Dennis Nason appeared to be weeping. When she was addressing the judge about sentencing the Nasons in February, Payne-Pruitt's left hand was trembling. Her voice was not.
After the trial was over, Payne-Pruitt told reporters she was "somewhat disturbed at measuring the case against the amount of money that was spent...in a perfect world we would not balance what we do against how much it cost. What was the effect on 80 children of growing up in that home? The cost of that, frankly is over and above what this case cost to try."
From her point of view, the case was not lost.
"I am never sure in the criminal justice system if we achieve justice. What we try to do is enforce the law. That is what the district attorney is doing and that is what law enforcement does, and I think we did that," Payne Pruitt said.
She would not agree with judge Michael Sullivan's suggestion that sentencing be accomplished in half a day, saying she intended to produce witnesses to how there were aggravating factors. She will push for the maximum possible sentence.
However, Judge Sullivan cautioned Payne-Pruitt that he will not review evidence he has already seen.
After a year in trial and an exhibit list that runs into the thousands, there can't be much of that.
(For those interested in more detail, we recommend the Thursday, November 23, 1995 edition of The Bulletin, which has 10 stories covering all aspects of the final verdict.)