You arrive at the court house on your scheduled day for jury duty. As the trial commences it becomes apparent that you’re in for a strange case. The defendant is claiming that demons made him commit the crime. You know there’s no way that’s possible demons simply aren’t real. But then you began to wonder; does the defendant believe they’re real? If he does then did he really commit a crime?
The above scenario can be classified as having something to do with the paranormal, often a subject that comes up once a year around Halloween. It is also a subject that provokes drastically different opinions in people. There are the believers those who believe the paranormal is real, the skeptics who don’t believe a word of it, and those in between who are just waiting for proof to convince them. Perhaps, a clearer understanding of the term paranormal is in order. Webster’s dictionary defines the term paranormal as that which is not scientifically explainable. For purposes of this discussion the term paranormal is being used to describe a variety of concepts that include ghosts, hauntings, psychics/mediums, extra sensory perception (ESP), remote viewing, and claims regularly viewed as being unbelievable.
No discussion of the paranormal and the legal field would be complete without a mention of the criminal aspect. This area is very different from the previous areas of psychics and haunted real estate. The legal system already plays an important role in this area and should continue to play that role, the paranormal should and does take a back seat and doesn’t play a role in the court’s determination of these cases.
On February 16, 1981, in Brookfield, CT 19 year old Arne Cheyenne Johnson (Man is Convicted in Friend’s Death, N.Y. TIMES, Nov. 25, 1981), murdered his friend and landlord, 40 year old Alan Bono, by repeatedly stabbing him with a pocket knife. This case attracted national attention and earned the name of “the demon murder trial.” (Lynne Baranski, In a Connecticut Murder Trial, Will (Demonic) Possession Prove Nine-Tenths of the Law? PEOPLE, Oct. 26, 1981).
The reason for all of the attention this case attracted can be attributed to Johnson’s attorney who attempted to enter a “plea of not guilty by virtue of demonic possession” (Id.) in the Danbury Superior Court. Johnson’s attorney stated that “I’m going to show the guy isn’t insane and that it’s not a delusion. The courts have dealt with the existence of God, and now they’ll be asked to deal with the existence of the demonic spirit.” (Id.) Judge Callahan ultimately rejected the plea and Johnson was convicted of first degree manslaughter in November of 1981 (Id.).
Now what would have happened if the Judge had allowed the plea? Johnson’s attorney would have been able to bring in evidence that Johnson was possessed. This could lead to other defendants claiming to be possessed when they committed a crime. There currently is no scientific proof to support a case of possession and many times it simply is determined to be a case of mental illness (Id.). This is one area where it would defeat the court’s purpose by allowing evidence of the paranormal because it could end up being used as a way to circumnavigate justice and ultimately allow the guilty to go unpunished.
What if Johnson really was possessed? Should he still be responsible for the murder? These would have been possible questions the Danbury Superior Court would have had to consider if the plea had been allowed. We will never know for sure if he was or if he wasn’t.
More recently in March of 2009 in Hartford, CT, Calwyn Fearon, murdered his girlfriend, Sharon Tyrell-Barnaby (HARTFORD POLICE DEPARTMENT NEWS RELEASE, www.hartford.gov/police/PR_2009/March/2009_03_23_FearonArrestforBarnabyHomicide.htm).
In the police report it was stated that Fearon said “Tyrell-Barnaby, was the Head Ghost, and he had enough.” (Hilda Munoz, Murder Trial Begins for Man Who Claimed Ghosts Made Him Kill, https://articles.courant.com/2010-11-03/community/hc-ghost-murder-1104-20101103_1_sharon-tyrell-barnaby-calwyn-fearon-bodwell-street). Fearon believed that ghosts were tormenting/making fun of him, he claimed the ghosts made him shoot Tyrell-Barnaby.
At Hartford Superior Court a three-judge panel found Fearon not guilty by reason of mental defect. Part of the testimony presented that led to their decision was from a psychiatrist who “reported that the defendant believed that Jesus was telling him to kill Ms. Barnaby and that her death would allow him to solve his problems with the ghosts”(David Owens, Man Not Guilty of Slaying by Reason of Mental Defect, articles.courant.com/2010-11-09/news/hc-fearon-mentally-ill-1110-20101109_1_head-ghost-calwyn-fearon-bodwell-street).
Fearon was diagnosed as suffering from chronic paranoid schizophrenia. Ultimately, Fearon has been committed to 60 years of “maximum-security psychiatric care.”(Id.) However, his condition will be reviewed by the state Psychiatric Security Review Board every two years and if Fearon is found to no longer be dangerous or mentally ill he will be allowed to leave. (Christine Dempsey, Hartford Man Committed For 60 Years In Girlfriend’s Fatal Shooting, articles.courant.com/2011-02-16/community/hc-hartford-ghosts-murder-0217-20110216_1_mental-defect-mental-illness-head-ghost).
In the above case the Hartford Superior Court, recognized the claim that “ghosts made me do it!” as a sign of mental illness. Here, it truly wasn’t anything paranormal but merely a disease that caused the crime. If the court had considered that Fearon was really being tormented by ghosts it would have led to a possibly different outcome, it also would have opened up the way for other criminal defendants to claim that ghosts made them do it.
In a more startling case from 2004 Dena Schlosser murdered her ten month old daughter by cutting off her arms, she then calmly told a 911 operator while a gospel song played in the background that “I cut her arms off” (MOTHER CONFESSES TO SEVERING BABY’S ARMS, www.msnbc.msn.com/id/6561617/ns/us_news-crime_and_courts/). This case doesn’t appear to have a paranormal aspect to it, until you consider part of the testimony that was heard at trial.
Schlosser’s husband, John Schlosser, stated at trial that Schlosser told him she wanted to give the baby to Pastor Doyle Davidson, that she wanted “to give the baby to god.”(HUSBAND TESTIFIES IN CASE OF WOMAN WHO CUT OFF BABY’S ARMS www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,184731,00.html).
At trial Pastor Doyle Davidson, stated that “I do not believe that any mental illness exists other than demons, and no medication can straighten it out, other than the power of God” (Thomas Korosec, Pastor Blames Demons, not Mental Illness, https://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/metropolitan/3663101.html). Schlosser was found not guilty by reason of insanity and was admitted to state care. However, she was released in 2008 but has since been sent back (DENA SCHLOSSER BACK IN HOSPITAL, www.myfoxdfw.com/dpp/news/042610-Dena-Schlosser-Back-in-Hospital). The paranormal aspect of this case comes in with the Pastor’s belief that it’s demons to blame. Thankfully, this belief didn’t have anything to do with the outcome.
Another interesting case that involves a belief in the paranormal comes from Manila in the Philippines. Jonjon Bituin was arrested for robbing and murdering his 71 year old neighbor. Bituin turned himself into the Manila Police claiming that he was being haunted by the ghost of the woman he murdered (COPS ARREST ACCOMPLICE IN ROB-SLAY OF SEPTUAGENARIAN IN TONDO, www.mb.com.ph/articles/304994/cops-arrest-accomplice-robslay-septuagenarian-tondo). While this isn’t an American case it is certainly interesting to note that a murderer turned himself in because of his belief in ghosts and that he believed one was haunting him. Perhaps, he was merely being haunted by a guilty conscience.
These cases show that the court is more likely to consider a psychological reason then a paranormal one when dealing with criminal cases. Ultimately, the paranormal really has no place in criminal trials because it could be used as a way to avoid being found guilty. In these type of cases there really is no way to test the defendant’s claims that ghosts made them kill or that they were possessed by demons.
In order for paranormal phenomena to be accepted by courts it would have to pass the same test that all other scientific evidence must pass which was outlined in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, which requires a two-part analysis. It first has to be determined if the experts testimony is reliable meaning does it equal “good science” this is determined by seeing if the experts testimony comes from “scientific knowledge [and] whether their findings are ‘derived by the scientific method.’” The second prong requires that the experts’ testimony be relevant to the case. Meaning as stated in Daubert “that it logically advances a material aspect of the proposing party’s case.“
There were several factors outlined in Daubert to assist in determining whether or not to admit expert testimony. These factors are not required but can be given consideration. They are as follows:
1. Is the experts’ method or theory “generally accepted in the scientific community?”
2. Has the experts’ method or theory been published and peer reviewed?
3. Has the experts’ method or theory been tested?
4. Does the experts’ theory or methods have an acceptable “known or potential rate of error?”
In order for the Daubert test to be applied we would need to pick which specific paranormal phenomena we are trying to introduce. For instance if we are trying to prove that a house is haunted we would try to bring evidence of this which could consist of: video recordings of possible apparitions, electronic voice phenomena (the recording of “spirit voices” on a recorder digital or analog that are not heard with the human ear until the recording is played back), photos, data collected from devices that are believed to detect possible “spirit activity” such as from an Electromagnetic Field meter (EMF), a “spirit box” which “uses radio frequency sweeps to generate white noise which theories suggest give some entities the energy they need to be heard. When this occurs you will sometimes hear voices or sounds coming through the static in an attempt to communicate” (https://www.ghoststop.com/Spirit-Box-B-PSB7-EVP-for-ITC-p/evp-psb7.htm), a thermal camera, etc.
It seems unlikely that the court would ever go so far as to require proof of a haunting. Rather it seems the very reputation of a house as being haunted is what lands it into the same area as stigmatized property. By doing this the courts skip over the issue of trying to prove that ghosts exist.
Whereas if we are trying to prove psychic phenomena is real it would become more difficult to satisfy the requirements of Daubert. It would take an amazing feat on the part of the psychic to convince everyone that what they do is indeed real. This raises the question of how psychic phenomena could even be measured scientifically. If this was something that was ever allowed to come into the court system the implications would be endless.
Consider a psychic testifying about the identity of a murderer if what the psychic says is taken as truth then the suspected murderer could receive life in prison or even the death penalty based on the word of another person. This wouldn’t serve justice accurately at all or would it? If the psychic is telling the truth then shouldn’t the murderer receive the punishment?
In conclusion whether you’re a believer, skeptic, or somewhere in between “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth” (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes).
*Not intended as legal advice*