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Guilty plea in cult child murder revocable by resurrection

March 31, 2009

Ben Nuckols of the AP has the incredible story of a Baltimore area woman who helped starve her one year old son to death. According to the report

[t]he mother made an extraordinary deal with prosecutors Monday that her guilty plea to child abuse resulting in death will be withdrawn if her 1-year-old son, Javon Thompson, comes back to life. Law experts and psychiatrists said there was no problem with the agreement because Ria Ramkissoon, 22, was mentally competent and freely entered into the deal, and extreme religious beliefs aren’t deemed insane by law.

This case, while notably tragic, raises the issue of mental competency as it relates to religious belief. According to a retired psychiatrist interviewed for the story,

“To say that someone is crazy because they have beliefs is very difficult,” said Dr. Jonas Rappeport, a retired forensic psychiatrist and the former chief medical officer for Baltimore Circuit Court. “If I believe that God wants me to starve my child, that gets close to the edge, but it’s very questionable as to calling that an illness that would exonerate someone for a crime.”

The issue of competency is a complex one in the law but, generally speaking, goes more towards the issue of whether the defendant knows that the act he or she committed is against the law, whether they understand the charges against them and whether they can participate in their own defense. Legal insanity, in other words, is very different from our generally held views about who is, and who isn’t, mentally ill.

This case does provide the opportunity to ask another interesting question: Can earnestly held religious beliefs be the basis for a finding of mental illness (or lack of competency) in a legal proceeding? How would we draw an objective distinction, for example, between a defendant who believes that her dead child will be resurrected after being dead for over a year and another defendant who believes that a middle eastern man who rose from the dead more than 2,000 years ago will someday return to judge the living and the dead prior to the ascendancy of the faithful to heaven? The question of the relevance of faith outside of religious observance or personal belief isn’t new or even that uncommon. But the application of this question to the law, especially with regard to such a uniquely disturbing case, is relatively rare.

It isn’t enough to say here, as we normally would, that objective law and subjective faith operate in separate realms. Stephen Jay Gould, in his book, “Rock of Ages”, makes the argument that science (of which law would be analogous in this example) and religion are what he would call non-overlapping magesteria (NOMA). They are, essentially, two forms of authority that operate over wholly separate spheres of meaning or existence. With this unfortunate case we find that sometimes these authorities collide.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. john permalink
    March 31, 2009 7:54 pm

    what is interesting to me about this case is that the prosecutors leveraged a belief to gain a plea agreement. A belief they clearly feel is absurd or else they would not be prosecuting her. Is that ethical?

    • March 31, 2009 9:16 pm

      If you look at the plea agreement as a bargain, each side must get something that they want. (And, in addition, each side must incur a duty to the other side.) Here, she got what she wanted, something of value to her: the right to be set free, or at the very least to withdraw her plea, in the event of a resurrection. It isn’t the prosecution’s responsibility to judge the value of the item she wants in return. In fact, we wouldn’t want the prosecution to engage in that kind of estimation on a regular basis, it would bog down the system as well as inject another level of government control over the process.

      • john permalink
        April 1, 2009 8:28 am

        Yes but what about a case where the prosecution knows the value of their offer is zero but still uses that offer to obtain a plea agreement. Like offering to let a serial killer go if Jesus comes to them and tells them he told the killer to do it. Or perhaps a more mundane example, the prosecution knows a conspirator of a defendant is dead and the defendant does not, but they use the threat of the conspirator’s testimony to get a plea agreement. In each case the prosecution knows there is no chance the variable they are suggesting will happen but they use the credulity of the defendant to force a plea agreement. I’m sure this doesn’t happen very often, but it seems to me a very interesting ethical question. And coping lame by saying “well anything is possible” is not a ethically tenable solution.

  2. john permalink
    April 1, 2009 8:41 am

    Basically it seems to me the prosecution used the non-rational nature of religious belief and our country’s obssesion with the separation of church and state to dupe a deluded young woman

  3. April 1, 2009 11:32 am

    The value of anything is what someone will pay for it. Your assertion that the prosecution offered something of “zero” value is rebutted by the defendant’s willingness to accept an offer only if it included the resurrection provision. She clearly thought it had a substantial value. In addition, the prosecution was obligated to operate in accord with the judge’s determination that she was legally sane and so, therefore, they had to accept her decision to plead guilty as an informed choice made by a mentally competent defendant. Under the law as it exists, then, the prosecution acted both legally and ethically. Of course, that still leaves open the question of whether religious belief can be evidence of mental illness. But that is an issue for legislatures and bloggers, not for the prosecutor.

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