Archives For Christopher Vaughn

On Friday, the Contra Costa Times reported that an appeal to overturn a 2010 fraud conviction was denied. California’s 2nd District Court of Appeal decided that prosecutors did not unfairly prejudice the case by bringing up a “voodoo” (though more likely Palo Mayombe, according to one expert) shrine that belonged to Ruben Hernandez, saying the evidence was “highly probative” of his “consciousness of guilt.”

The altar of Ruben Hernandez.

The altar of Ruben Hernandez.

In a 35-page ruling, the appellate court justices noted that Hernandez testified during the trial about the “benevolent purposes served by the dolls.” “He characterized the dolls as an element of his Catholic faith in which the pins stuck in the dolls were a form of ‘spiritual acupuncture’ to cleanse evil from the individuals the dolls represented. He also believed the dolls would assist in ensuring people were not put in jail wrongfully,” the justices wrote.

This case is just the most recent to raise the question of when, exactly, it is fair and relevant to a criminal case to bring up a defendant’s adherence to a minority religion, or involvement in an esoteric practice. While the justices in the Court of Appeals found that Ruben Hernandez’s altar was fair game, that wasn’t the opinion in the case of Christopher Vaughn, accused of murdering his wife and three children. In that instance, Judge Daniel Rozak ruled that Vaughn’s adherence to Druid beliefs could not be directly referenced, seemingly agreeing with Public Defender Jaya Varghese, who said that “The word ‘Druid’ alone is prejudicial,” and would “significantly impact” his right to a fair trial.

“A Will County judge this morning barred attorneys from referring to quadruple-murder suspect Christopher Vaughn’s Druid beliefs at trial, but said some statements Vaughn posted to a Druid listserv can be heard by jurors. […] Prosecutors want to use postings Vaughn made to Druid listservs that refer to his desire to live in the Canadian wilderness. They argue his statements were another sign that Vaughn wanted to be rid of his family. […] Judge Daniel Rozak said he would allow the statements “if they somehow deal with leaving the country or living off the land” and don’t reference Vaughn’s religious beliefs.”

There are two very different cases, but both speak to the fact that the mere mention of a Pagan, Afro-disaporic, or esoteric practices can have an outsize influence on a trial, affecting how juries and judges react. For every instance where bringing up a defendant’s religion might be acceptable, as in the case of Angela Sanford, there are many more, particularly in custody battles, where it is not. Where it’s clear that fear and ignorance are being welded as weapons to win a judgement.

Perhaps the best-known example of this would be the case of the West Memphis 3 (Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jesse Misskelley Jr.), where Damien Echols’ interest in the occult and Wicca was used as proof of his murderous interests, and the three were subsequently swallowed up in the Satanic hysteria of the times.

The West Memphis Three

The West Memphis Three

“…you really have to put this case into historical perspective. In 1993, the Satanic Bandwagon Folks like Dr. Griffis were mainstream and largely supported by both the media and established religion. We now know better, just like we now know that there are such things as “coerced confessions.” In 1993, virtually everybody believed that the phenomena of Satanic Ritualistic Homicide was very real, and perhaps even more regrettably, that no one, not even a mentally handicapped person, or a child, would confess to a crime that they did not commit. Thankfully, due in large part to pioneers with real credentials like Dr. Gisli Gudjohnson, Dr. Richard Ofshe, and Dr. Richard Leo, we now understand the dynamics of false confessions. By the way, not many people remember that Dr. Ofshe won a Pulitzer Prize for his work studying religious “cults.” He had a dual expertise.”

Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley would end up spending 18 years in prison before being freed in 2011 on an Alford plea, the capstone on an era that saw thousands of lives ruined in part thanks to the willingness of lawyers and prosecutors to wrongfully exploit people’s fears. Today, those fears are still being exploited, invoking “effigy dolls dunked upside down in this brown liquid” to judge the “consciousness of guilt.” Judging the worth of mothers, or even the depths of depravity, through what amounts to a theological popularity contest.

It very well may be that Hernandez, or Vaughn for that matter, are entirely guilty of the crimes they’ve been accused of, but that doesn’t remove the issue of their religion or beliefs being invoked. In Vaughn’s case, his lawyer was able to make sure the case stayed focused on the facts, while Hernandez’s trial allowed his “voodoo altar” to be used as evidence of his guilt, even though the spells may have born from defensive fear instead of from a guilty conscience. It is for this reason, perhaps more than any other, that outreach and interfaith efforts must be maintained.

It’s easy to affect an air of smug superior isolationism when there’s nothing on the line, but in the wider world we must constantly face that our faiths are a tiny minority in world dominated by faiths that have been historically hostile to us. We have to work towards changing perceptions, or else we risk sacrificing all those who end up situations where  misconceptions can mean jail and ruined lives. In the meantime, while we work for change, let’s hope that more lawyers advocate strongly to leave religions most people don’t understand off the witness stand.

Just a few quick news notes for you today.

Lawyers May Not Mention Druid Beliefs in Vaughn Murder Trial: Earlier this week I mentioned that lawyers for Christopher Vaughn, accused of murdering his wife and three children, were trying to block any mention of his Druid religion from court proceedings.  Public Defender Jaya Varghese said that “The word ‘Druid’ alone is prejudicial,” and would “significantly impact” his right to a fair trial. Today, Judge Daniel Rozak ruled that Vaughn’s Druid beliefs may not be mentioned at trial, though comments he made on a Druid listserv can be referenced.

Vaughn family photo from 2007.

Vaughn family photo from 2007.

“A Will County judge this morning barred attorneys from referring to quadruple-murder suspect Christopher Vaughn’s Druid beliefs at trial, but said some statements Vaughn posted to a Druid listserv can be heard by jurors. […] Prosecutors want to use postings Vaughn made to Druid listservs that refer to his desire to live in the Canadian wilderness. They argue his statements were another sign that Vaughn wanted to be rid of his family. […] Judge Daniel Rozak said he would allow the statements “if they somehow deal with leaving the country or living off the land” and don’t reference Vaughn’s religious beliefs.”

How messages Christopher Vaughn posted to Druid websites are to be referenced must still be decided, though this should be seen as a win for Vaughn’s defense team. Vaughn lawyer claims his wife killed the children, before he could kill her in self-defense, while prosecutors allege that Vaughn calculatedly eliminated his family in order to be rid of them. The trial is slated to begin in August.

The Washington Post Weighs in on the John Friend Anusara Yoga Scandal: Manuel Roig-Franzia writes about the “contorting” (ha-ha) scandal within the Anusara yoga school for the Washington Post, taking brief note of the Wiccan-related accusations against Anusara founder John Friend.

Anusara Yoga founder John Friend.

Anusara Yoga founder John Friend.

“In conference calls, e-mails and hushed conversations, Friend has admitted to sexual relations with students and employees and married women. He has confessed to cheating on one girlfriend and smoking marijuana, according to senior Anusara instructors who have participated in conference calls with him. And he has acknowledged leading an otherwise all-female Wiccan coven whose members sometimes took off all their clothes for gatherings, according to senior Anusara instructors who detailed his admissions in a written summary provided to The Washington Post. The coven’s name was the Blazing Solar Flames, and Friend had Anusara’s graphics team design a logo for it, according to three former employees.”

This is the first I’ve seen of any acknowledgement from Friend or Anusara regarding the coven. As I’ve reported previously (follow-up, here), accusations state that he used the coven as a pretext for sexual liaisons. While there’s no further statement, or mention of it in the WP article, the fact that Friend was the acknowledged male leader of an all-female coven does raise some red flags. That said, taking your clothes off for gatherings isn’t unusual within Traditional Witchcraft (it’s called going “skyclad”), and isn’t seen as an automatic prelude to sexy-times. You can see a video interview with Friend from last year about how Anusara yoga, Wicca, and Paganism interface.

The Occult Crimes Taskforce is Coming To the Your Television: Various pop-culture news sites are reporting that the comic book OCT: Occult Crimes Taskforce is being adapted into a television series for the A&E Network. Actress and OCT co-creator Rosario Dawson is working with The Walking Dead’s Gale Anne Hurd to adapt the work, and it is widely assumed that Dawson will star in the show, as the main character, Sophia Ortiz, is modeled on her.

Image from the O.C.T. comic, featuring Sophia Ortiz/Rosario Dawson.

Image from the O.C.T. comic, featuring Sophia Ortiz/Rosario Dawson.

“The scripted drama, an increasingly appealing genre for the cable network, will explore the inner workings of the task force, which was established after the Civil War to make the New York City streets safe from practitioners of black magic, demons from another dimension and all manner of supernatural malcontents.”

Scripted dramas, especially scripted dramas that feature occult and fantastic elements seem to be on the increase lately. It should be interesting to see if O.C.T. makes it to the small screen, and if it will find an appreciative audience. While I’m on the subject of occult-themed television, I should note that British television channel ITV2 has ordered a new drama entitled “Switch” about four witches living together in London. Created by the same people behind the show Being Human, can we expect an American version of that show on Syfy in the near-ish future?

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

Welcome to the latest installment of Unleash the Hounds, in which I round up articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans. Before we get started I wanted to give an update on the Pagan journalism crowdfunding experiment I launched on March 21st. The very excellent news is that not only have I reached my fundraising goal of $1850 dollars to send The Wild Hunt to Chicago in November so that I can cover the American Academy of Religion’s 2012 Annual Meeting, but I’ve surpassed that goal by hundreds of dollars. All in less than a week! Thank you! Your enthusiastic response not only means I’ll be covering the AAR’s Annual Meeting, but that we have a head start on the next crowdfunding assignment (all monies raised beyond the goal will be rolled over into the next campaign).

http://www.indiegogo.com/thewildhunt-AAR

http://www.indiegogo.com/thewildhunt-AAR

Once the month-long campaign officially ends I’ll update my affiliates page with all those who chose to become underwriters, and update all who’ve donated on other promised perks. Considering the success of this initial go, I think it’s fair to say that I’ll be using this model to fund other assignments. The big question now is, where would you like me to go, and how often do you think I should hold a crowdfunding assignment campaign? I welcome your feedback, and once we have some solid ideas for events you’d like to see me at, we can even hold a poll to gauge reader interest. Some initial ideas for future assignments include the Esoteric Book Conference in Seattle, and Paganicon in Minnesota. Make your voices heard, and if there’s enough demand, we’ll try to fund them one at a time. Ultimately, I would like to build this up and work towards funding a trip to the 2014 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Belgium.

So again, thank you to my generous supporters. You made this happen. Now then, let’s unleash the hounds, shall we?

PNC Managing Editor, Cara Schulz with Presidential candidate Gov. Gary Johnson

PNC Managing Editor, Cara Schulz with Presidential candidate Gov. Gary Johnson

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of them I may expand into longer posts as needed.