Minister Cannot Testify to Alleged Demon Possession in Court

But a testimony regarding a defendant’s behavior in counseling is acceptable.

Church Law and Tax 1993-07-01 Recent Developments

Confidential and Privileged Communications

Key point: A minister’s observations of a counselee’s demeanor is not protected by the clergy-penitent privilege.

The Idaho Supreme Court ruled that a minister was not qualified to testify in a murder trial regarding the defendant’s alleged demon possession, but he could testify regarding the defendant’s demeanor during a counseling session. A mother was charged with murdering her 9-year-old son by giving him a cup of hot chocolate in which she had intentionally placed a lethal dose of poison. During her trial, she testified that she was a devoted mother who loved her child, but that she had been told by a “demon” that her son must die. In support of her defense of demon possession, the mother called a pastor to the witness stand who had engaged in counseling sessions with her in the past. The pastor described one counseling session as follows: “After a period of prayer there was a definite change in [the defendant’s] whole demeanor. Her facial expressions changed. Her personality changed. Her voice inflection changed.” He further testified that the voice he heard was much deeper and gruffer than the defendant’s normal voice, and that at the end of the hour-long counseling session the defendant “slumped into a semi-conscious state.” He concluded that he had “encountered a different person in that room.” The trial judge allowed the pastor to testify regarding his personal observations of the defendant during counseling, but ordered the jury to disregard all of the pastor’s testimony suggesting that the defendant was demon possessed. The judge reasoned that demon possession was similar to insanity, and was not a permissible defense to criminal liability. The jury convicted the defendant of first degree murder, and she appealed her conviction in part because of the trial judge’s refusal to permit the jury to consider the pastor’s testimony. The state supreme court upheld the conviction. The court observed: “To the extent [the pastor] described personal observations of the defendant his testimony was properly admitted at trial. However, it was his testimony suggesting demonic possession which was excluded by the trial court. The witness was allowed to testify and describe personal observations, however any conclusions as to the cause of [the defendant’s] condition was excluded. In this there was no error.” State v. Winn, 828 P.2d 879 (Idaho 1992).

See Also: Were the Statements Intended to be Communications?

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