Minority Religions and Esoteric Practices as Courtroom Evidence

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  May 14, 2012 — 18 Comments

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.

Jason Pitzl-Waters