Mar 02 2012

I Dream of Spectral Evidence

During the European witch hunts that came in waves throughout the 15-17th centuries “spectral evidence” was allowed in court, as it was during the Salem witch trials as well. Spectral evidence is testimony based upon the dreams or visions of a witness. They could, for example, say that a visage of the accused came to them in a dream and put a curse on them. Reverend Cotton Mather, a prominent figure in the Salem witch trials, supported the use of spectral evidence, but cautioned that it should not be relied upon as the sole source of evidence because Satan could take the form of an innocent. His father, Increase Mather, after the trials opposed the use of spectral evidence on the same basis – not that it was an arbitrary and unreliable source of evidence, but because it can be the work of demons.

Alas, the specter of spectral evidence still lingers in our modern world. A Saudi court is considering whether or not they should allow a genie (or jinn) to give testimony in open court. (Actually this story is about a year old, but it just making its way to English-speaking news outlets, but the outcome of the case has not.) The case involves accusations of corruption and bribery – a judge is accused of taking a bribe to let off a defendant in his court. In his defense the judge claims that he was possessed by a genie summoned by the defendant, who is a sorcerer (that’s right – the “devil made me do it” defense). In order to prove his case the court allowed testimony from a cleric who claims to talk to genies:

The paper said the court summoned Fayez Al-Kathami, a well-known cleric and Raqi who is believed to have the powers of speaking to jinn.

It said the court summoned Kathami after the arrested judge said he was possessed by jinn through another defendant, who is a sorcerer.

Kathami told the judge later that he managed to “question” the jinn that had possessed the judge and would present a report to the court.

The attorney who is defending the man now accused of summoning a genie to possess the judge trying his case is not pleased with this line of evidence. He has requested that the court summon the genie directly so that it can give its testimony before a live court. It seems this is a ploy to have the genie’s testimony thrown out as hearsay – if the genie cannot appear in court to give its testimony against his client, then it should not be admitted. Given the situation that lawyer is in, I guess that’s a reasonable approach.

No one involved with this case appears to be bothered by the fact that they are admitting hearsay testimony from the Saudi equivalent of a demon.

Yes – this is a shocking display of medieval superstitious nonsense in an allegedly modern society, but before you start feeling too superior consider that there are cases of spectral evidence being admitted in US courts. Although uncommon, psychics have been admitted as expert witnesses, and are at times used by police departments to “help” with investigations. Although unsuccessful, the plea of “not guilty due to reason of demonic possession” was actually attempted in a Connecticut murder case (that of Arne Cheyenne Johnson).

More relevant is the admission of testimony based on recovered memories. In the early 1990s there was a rash of murder and rape cases based entirely on recovered memories. At least 7 individuals were convicted and sent to jail based entirely on this evidence, without any corroborating physical evidence.

Testimony based on facilitated communication (FC) should also, in my opinion, be considered spectral evidence. In FC the person allegedly giving the testimony is unable to communicate. A facilitator using the dubious technique of FC “interprets” the testimony, although the scientific evidence indicates that the testimony comes from the mind of the facilitator themselves, and not their client. Yet, FC testimony is still admitted in many courts – in contradiction to the scientific evidence.

While we think of spectral evidence as a phenomenon of medieval times and regressive parts of the world, it continues to rear its head even in allegedly modern and enlightened societies. We should not forget that justice depends on the application of legitimate science and objective evidence. Any form of testimony is notoriously unreliable, and testimony from a source that cannot be objectively verified should be considered “spectral” and not admissible.

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