Can exorcism be used as a viable defense to murder? Five members of a Korean family are being charged with murder over the death of a relative during an exorcism ritual. Prosecutors of the German court have stated the family members wanted to expel a “demon” they believed to have possessed their relative.
According to prosecutors, all the accused took part in suffocating the woman. The woman died of asphyxiation as a result of “massive chest compression and violence to her neck.” It’s believed the family members took turns holding and pinning the victim to the ground and kneeing her in the chest in order to “cast out the devils.” They are also alleged to have stuffed a towel in her mouth multiple times in order to stop her from screaming.
The family members claimed that sometime last year, the victim began hitting herself, talking to herself, and became physically aggressive towards her family for unknown reasons, which was what ultimately led to their decision to perform an exorcism. According to German media, the family members being charged with murder are all believed to practice a form of Christianity with shamanist influences.
Cases of Exorcism Aren’t Unheard of in The U.S.
Similar cases have popped up, although infrequently, around the U.S. The first known claim of demonic possession to be used as a method denial of criminal responsibility came in 1981 when Arne Cheyenne Johnson was convicted for first-degree manslaughter for killing his landlord. Johnson killed his landlord during a heated conversation, but claimed that the landlord was possessed and tried to use that as a defense. The judge didn’t buy it, though, and ruled that such a defense could never be proven and, therefore, was not a suitable defense in a court of law.
In 2014, a Maryland mother was charged with killing her two children during an attempted exorcism. Zakieya Avery stabbed both of her children to death (and wounded two other children while attempting the exorcism) because she believed the children were possessed by demons. Although it’s unclear what Avery’s religious beliefs were, Avery never had to stand trial because she ultimately plead guilty to the crimes. A judge found her not criminally responsible and sentenced Avery to a psychiatric hospital rather than prison time.
Insanity is widely accepted as a viable defense and that seems to be the likely route that most defendant’s would take, but I imagine it will be nearly impossible to prove that all five family members in the German trial are legally insane. When it comes down to it, the practice of exorcisms, although often not formally recognized by churches, have deep religious roots—so it boils down to whether or not a person can use religion as a defense to a crime.
Government Leaves Small Window for Religion in Laws
There are some states that leave some wiggle room when it comes to using religion as a defense to certain crimes. You might be thinking there’s supposed to be separation of church and state and, of course, there is, but it can be more convoluted than that. The First Amendment leaves room for the free exercise of religion, so it makes sense that the government would allow religion to be used in certain instances.
For example, Oregon law allows a religious-based defense when the crime is possession of peytote, while Illinois allows an exception to serving alcohol to minors during religious ceremonies. The Supreme Court has held that convictions stemming from charges against an Amish family for not sending their children to school in violation of a state law were a violation of the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.
Bans On Sharia Law Evidence Religion Can’t Be Taken Too Far in Our Justice System
Despite these types of exceptions, there’s a history of keeping religion out of our justice system and that’s been especially evident in recent years.
In 2011, a New Jersey judge refused to grant a woman a protective order from her husband because he defended his actions by claiming that rape and sexual abuse aligned with his Muslim beliefs. The case was ultimately overturned by a higher court, but it incited an outrage within the U.S. which led to legislation across the country that attempted to specifically ban Sharia law.
Although higher courts have ruled banning one specific type of belief, i.e. Sharia, isn’t constitutional, it is legal to prohibit the use of any type of religion as a legal cop-out.
Authored by Ashley Roncevic, LegalMatch Legal Writer and Attorney at Law