By Joanne Fowler/Atlanta Alicia Dennis/Atlanta
May 28, 2007 12:00 PM

Crown Shakur made one visit to the doctor in his short life. Weighing just 3½ lbs., the 6-week-old infant—whose parents say they fed him a diet of breast milk, organic apple juice and soy milk—was pronounced dead of malnutrition-related pneumonia on April 25, 2004. “I loved him, and I know my son loved me,” says his father, Lamonti Thomas, 31, who, with the boy’s mother, Jade Sanders, 27, follows a strict vegan diet with no meat, eggs, dairy or other animal products.

But on May 2, a jury in Atlanta rejected the parents’ claim that they had tried, but tragically failed, to raise their child on a vegan diet, finding them guilty of involuntary manslaughter for underfeeding their baby and murder for failing to seek medical attention in time to save his life. They were sentenced to life in prison. “Every bone in this child’s body was protruding. There was no fat or muscle whatsoever,” says Fulton County prosecutor Chuck Boring. “This infant wasn’t fed enough of anything.”

Experts have clashed before on whether infants—who require high quantities of fat and such essential vitamins as B12 and zinc—can thrive on a vegan diet. “It’s risky,” says pediatrician William Sears, who advises vegans to consult a nutritionist. “A child’s brain grows more in the first two years than at any other time. With a vegan diet, you miss some important brain food.” Still, ensuring toddlers receive all necessary nutrients is possible with planning, says Boston librarian Clayton Cheever, 34, who, with his wife, Jackie DeLisi, 35, a graduate student, have raised two healthy children—Samuel, 5, and Sayde, 2—on a vegan diet since birth. Though the kids rank approximately in the 50th percentile for height and weight, they are normal, active children who take multivitamins and eat fortified cereal and soy milk, according to their parents. “We read a lot and have a good relationship with our pediatrician,” says Cheever. “We’re working with very competent people.”

Without doubt, Lamonti Thomas and Jade Sanders led an unconventional life. Sanders, a clerk at a smoothie store, eschewed prenatal care and delivered her son at home in a bathtub, without a doctor. The child had no birth certificate, and Thomas, a photographer for a real-estate company, says the couple objected to taking Crown to the hospital because they feared exposing him to germs. It was only after the baby began coughing and had problems breathing that the couple say they felt the need to seek help. (At the trial the prosecution contended that the baby was dead upon arrival.) “Does it make sense that people against animal cruelty would murder their child?” asks Lamonti Thomas. “No, it does not. I loved my son.”