Barring faith from criminal trials: new ways to protect minority faiths from defamation
What does Druidry have to do with homicide? Absolutely nothing — which is why a judge has forbidden any mention of an Illinois man’s (not pictured) faith during his upcoming trial. Photo by Flickr user owenski.
In recent weeks, the news has been flooded with criminal cases where the alleged perpetrator belonged to a minority faith.
In Ohio, a couple has been arrested for the sexual assault of a 15-year-old family member. The male half of the couple, named Daniel Hess, allegedly told police that the assault was part of the Wiccan faith.
In Chicago, 54-year-old Joseph Nerone claims he stabbed his 84-year-old mother to death, and that he was possessed by Satan when the attack took place.
And in South Africa, two young men who set a teenage girl on fire, allegedly as part of a “Satanic ritual,” were sentenced to 17 years each in jail.
It’s worth saying that Wiccan practices don’t involve nonconsensual or illegal sex, and that Satanic practices don’t involve murder.
And it’s also worth saying that the mere mention of minority faiths in the same sentence with a crime suggests that the two are related. Most of the time, they aren’t.
So it’s interesting that, in Illinois, a judge has ruled that Christopher Vaughn’s Druidic beliefs may not be mentioned in the courtroom during his murder trial. Vaughn is accused of shooting his wife and three children in 2007, and has remained in jail awaiting trial since then.
The move to strike mention of his faith from the courtroom was made by Vaughn’s defense attorney, who argued that such discussions could prevent Vaughn from receiving a fair trial.
That’s an interesting approach — but the correct one. Even though Druids are peaceful, and their practices center on the veneration of nature, the jury is likely unfamiliar with those facts. That ignorance can quickly turn to discomfort or fear, coloring their views of Vaughn. (However, Vaughn made posts on a Druid listserv saying he wanted to live on his own in the Canadian wilderness, and the judge has allowed such posts to be admitted in the courtroom, though likely without mention of where they were posted).
Divorcing a defendant’s faith from his or her criminal actions, both inside and outside the courtroom, can protect both those on trial and those who practice the same faith. If this could happen in every trial — because faith is essentially never the motivation for violent criminal activity — as a culture we might stop associating beliefs we don’t understand with frightening acts.
This week, journalism site Poynter.org published a piece I wrote offering tips to journalists who are assigned to write articles where crime and minority faith overlap. There are many ways of making sure faith and violent crime aren’t falsely and unfairly connected; journalism reform is one, and barring mentions of faith in the courtroom such as in Vaughn’s case is another.
What others can you think of?