• Key point. The clergy-penitent privilege may not extend to conversations in which a counselee threatens to kill or seriously harm another person, since the counselee has no reasonable expectation that the minister will maintain the confidentiality of such information. The counselee should assume that the minister will feel morally obligated to warn the intended victim.
In an important decision, an Alabama court ruled that the clergy-penitent privilege does not apply to conversations with a minister in which the counselee communicates a threat to kill or seriously harm another person. An adult male (the "defendant") was convicted of murdering his girlfriend. The defendant appealed his conviction on several grounds, including the fact that the trial court improperly allowed into evidence communications that he insisted were protected by the clergy-penitent privilege. During the trial, the prosecutor asked a pastor to testify regarding certain conversations she had had with the defendant. The pastor testified that the defendant occasionally attended her church, and that he called her on three consecutive nights before the murder. On the first night, the defendant informed the pastor that he was upset because the woman he had been seeing had broken off their relationship. According to the pastor, the defendant was "more agitated" and "very upset" the second night, saying that he knew where his former girlfriend lived and that he would watch her. He also informed the pastor that if his girlfriend did not come back to him, he would kill her. The pastor testified that she tried to dissuade the defendant from carrying out such a plan by telling him that if he killed her he would "bust hell wide open." Although the pastor tried to get the defendant to tell her his former girlfriend's name so that she could warn her, he refused. On the third night, the night before the murder, the defendant again told the pastor that he was watching his girlfriend. The pastor again tried to discourage him from committing any violence, telling him that just talking to his former girlfriend would be more productive.