March 31, 2009

Constitutional And Social Problems With The "Lazarus Clause"

A lot of other law blogs have discussed this recent case. So have a lot of other atheist blogs. And of course, blogs by atheist lawyers have been all over it -- except for mine, at least up until now. The reason is, I haven't been able to pick up my mouth from the slackjawed amazement that this story induces. Well, here goes my take on it.

Ria Ramkissoon, 22, of Baltimore, Maryland, is a member of a religious group calling itself "One Mind Ministries." CNN and other news agencies describe "One Mind Ministries" as a "cult." What, exactly, separates the cult of One Mind Ministries from the respectable religions of Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Taoism, Wicca, and Zoroastrianism, I'm not really sure.

What we do know is that Ramkissoon murdered her infant son Javon in 2006. Javon is pictured to the right in a photo from a Baltimore TV station. Apparently, after meals and prayers, Javon would not say "Amen." So One Mind Ministries' leader, a 40-year-old woman apparently named Queen Antoinette, decreed that Javon was a demon and that he had to be separated from the rest of the congregation. She put the boy in a back room and locked him in there, and Ramkissoon consented to this. The congregation prayed for him, but amazingly, he starved to death despite their prayers. So then the Queen directed the congregation to pray for Javon's resurrection, which, surprisingly, also has yet to occur.

Yesterday, Ramkissoon reached a plea arrangement with the Baltimore County District Attorney. She'll and cooperate in incriminating the other cult members implicated in the death of little Javon, and she'll have to undergo psychological counseling and deprogramming. In exchange, the prosecutor will allow her to plead guilty to felony child abuse leading to death, rather than murder, and she'll get a suspended sentence of 20 years. But here's the catch.

Now, the basic plea arrangement is a very good deal for her. She won't do any additional prison time as long as she honors the terms of the plea arrangement. And I think the idea of letting her live with the fact that she had a hand in her own son's death as sufficient punishment for her, and going after the monsters who led the cult to this sort of thing, is also appealing.

But Ken at Popehat hits the nail right on the head. Ramkissoon is clearly still delusional, unwilling to let go of the idea that the congregation's prayers will revive him. Don't we all think that she's a lunatic for really believing that her son is going to come back from the dead? Do any of you Readers, including those among you who are faithful Christians, Jews, Muslims, or whatever, have even the slightest, tiniest, remotest doubt that the dead kid is going to stay dead?

Of course not. You're all smarter than that. And I'll wager further that deep down, you don't think that this is because Ramkissoon is saying the wrong kind of prayers or that she's praying to the wrong God.

The prosecutor has no doubts about the likelihood of Javon's resurrection, either, which is why he agreed to the term here. But as Ken points out:
If she believes that it was God’s will that her son be starved to death so that he could be resurrected, did she appreciate the nature of her actions, and is she able to participate meaningfully in her defense?
If she thought she was simply giving effect to God's will that the demon be driven out of her possessed son, then it is at best very unclear if she even understands that what she did was morally wrong. After all, driving out a demon who possesses someone seems like it would generally be a good and helpful thing to do. (Except when, you know, the exorcism kills the subject in the process.)

Now, I say, if she really believes this, she's obviously not of sound mind. And therefore she's not mentally competent to stand trial or enter a guilty plea to anything. Her grasp of reality is obviously twisted and warped beyond a point that we can count on her to interact with the world in a normal fashion. And that's one of the reasons that a condition of her plea arrangement is psychological treatment and deprogramming. But by making that a condition, isn't the prosecutor basically admitting that he's cutting a deal with a crazy woman, something he shouldn't be doing in the first place?

Which brings me full circle. She believes her son will be resurrected. But then again, don't a lot of religious people believe that they, and their loved ones, will be resurrected in the End Times? Not just Christians, although that's a mythology I'm most familiar with. What is it about Ramkissoon's faith that makes the rest of us conclude that she is obviously deluded, while these other faiths preaching the exact same thing are worthy of respect and, in some cases, held to be above criticism? Indeed, many courts treat a person's avowed faith in a particular religion as an indicator of their moral worth.

There is no principled way to do that. Ramkissoon's faith is presumptively genuine and intense. She seems to really believe that Javon is coming back through the power of prayer. It is simply not a brand of faith shared by a large number of people. And obviously it should not be a defense to murder. But this case, as clearly as many others we might look at, points to the fact that religion's facially ludicrous claims and the constraints of modern society are uncomfortably grafted together and not always reconcilable.

This case makes me uncomfortable as a lawyer because it looks like the prosecutor is toying with the defendant's imbalanced mental state. I think the Constitution demands better than that. It should make religious people uncomfortable, too -- because it exposes the fact that, when evaluated objectively, their doctrines can be used to provide moral gloss for abominable acts based on obviously ridiculous claims -- and it exposes just how ridiculous their own faith's claims really are.


Ken said...

Here's the tough question:

What if she knows that starving her son is against the law, and is capable of refraining from doing it, but believes it is God's will and chooses to follow what she sees as God's will?

If we exculpate her under those circumstances, don't the wheels come off of society's wagon?

Burt Likko said...

Pretty much, yes. At that point, anyone could claim to have been acting under divine instruction and nothing will be a crime. It would be the theists actually doing and being what they accuse atheists of -- behaving in any fashion they choose without moral compass, because there would be effectively no uniform rule to guide decision-makers.

Which is one of a myriad of excellent reasons why we should divorce the law from any claim to a divine mandate. The law should stand on its own, for no reason other than that it is the law.

S said...

I completely agree. I think it's shameful that a court would accept a plea that includes written proof of the defendant's delusional state. And what separates this woman's obvious delusional state from the delusions of any other believer in some religion? Frankly, all religious beliefs seem equally nutty to me.

DaveBuck said...

I couldn't focus on the legal and philosophical arguments in your piece. I couldn't stop thinking of the boy. starving. still can't.