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.

13 responses so far

13 thoughts on “I Dream of Spectral Evidence”

  1. TheDawgLives says:

    This reminds me of a speach by Barrack Obama:
    Although he was discussing basing laws on the bible, the underlying point is that interactions with the supernatual cannot be verified by independant third parties and are therefore not suited for use in a legal system.

  2. daedalus2u says:

    It is my understanding that the penalty for being a sorcerer in Saudi Arabia is death.

    I suspect the penalty for bribing a judge is less than death.

    In any case, a judge who is susceptible to being bribed or being possessed by a jinn is someone who should not be a judge any more.

    I think that cases like this demonstrate the real reason for much of the criminal justice system, a system to “other” and punish people who are not like those in charge. The reasons don’t really matter, the system is there to reinforce the already existing social power structure.

    If the criminal justice system was about rehabilitation, then it wouldn’t use draconian punishments and prisons which don’t work to achieve rehabilitation.

    As Dr Novella points out, western courts are susceptible to these things too because westerners are people too, and have the same human foibles as humans everywhere. The rules of courts are there, like the “rules” of skepticism to prevent the supreme power of the criminal justice system from being abused for private gain or to settle private feuds, or to give politicians “cred” for being “tough” on crime, or on the usual suspects.

  3. SARA says:

    I don’t find it particularly credible that this case represents the views and beliefs of most educated Saudis.

    Like any country, these are examples of silliness in the extreme within a normally rational process.

    Although, I do wonder if lack of separation between church and state doesn’t make a rational judge scream. How can you throw out as nonsense, something that is already acknowledged, at least tacitly by a government?

    While courts that have the separation are limited to trying to sort out the difference between real science and psudeo science (and aren’t always doing a very good job), how can one distinguish whether a djin is real? Its made of smokeless flame. I saw something similar on a magic show once. I don’t think the illusionist was summoning a djin.

  4. cjablonski says:

    I did a little digging, and this page seems to offer a recap of the whole trial, but it’s in Arabic and google’s translation is pretty weak. From what I can gather, though, it seems as though some version of the jinn’s testimony did play a role in the trial. Sad.

  5. tmac57 says:


    I don’t find it particularly credible that this case represents the views and beliefs of most educated Saudis.

    You should read these two links:

    Basically they use Sharia law which is not codified,and does not recognize legal precedent (they can make it up as they go along) So don’t ever piss off a Saudi judge!

    Even upper class high status women in Saudi Arabia are second class citizens compared to men.

    Oh,and as far as educated Saudis go,their focus on education has traditionally been on religious fundamentalism,and is only now starting to change to meet the modern world:

    For all it’s wealth,and relative advantages that it has in the Mid East,they have squandered that advantage in pursuit of preserving a fundamentalist and male dominated society,that integrates poorly into modern civilization and norms,and human rights.

  6. neilgraham says:


    It pains me to inform you that many people outside of the United States would find it ironic, at the very least, that an American would be instructing them about ‘… modern civilization and norms, and human rights’.

  7. tmac57 says:

    neilgraham- Your criticism is fallacious.If you disagree on the facts that I stated,then show where I was wrong,otherwise,your comment is irrelevant.

  8. neilgraham says:


    No criticism intended, simply a comment. ‘Relevance’, like that which may constitute ‘modern civilisation’ and ‘norms’, may lie in the eye of the beholder (unless, of course, you wish to set yourself up as some overarching judge – but then that might be some culturally acquired property, in which case you are absolutely correct).

  9. neilgraham says:


    On reflection, I unreservedly apologise for any perceived offence – there is no way I am going to argue with someone from a ‘modern civilisation’ with a nuclear arsenal big enough to blow us all to kingdom come (if you will permit that expression), I will adjust my ‘norms’ and any assessment of my ‘human rights’ accordingly.

  10. HHC says:

    Is it anymore comforting to know that Major Hasan, if tried in Saudi Arabia could plead he was possessed by a demon the day he chose to shootout his military associates at Fort Hood? Probably not. But more likely he treated himself with drugs and extreme religion to deal with his familial stressors and his constant struggle with the Army and his identity. Jihad is a normal condition of life in Islam, Hasan was always struggling with the forces around him prior to deployment. His superiors and associates in the Army were astute and documented his substandard work. The case against the government for willful negligence leading to the deaths at Fort Hood is currently underway.

  11. tmac57 says:

    neilgraham-I have no need for an apology,whether it is sincere or snarky.You clearly commited the Tu Quoque fallacy in your first reply.

    No matter where I come from,it has nothing whatever to do with whether or not Saudi Arabia can be considered an outlier in the treatment of women,and their capricious and backward judicial system. For instance,by your logic,(since you have a poor opinion of the U.S.),an American who comes out and criticizes the U.S. would have no credibility because they are themselves from that country.

  12. neilgraham says:


    Thank you for the lesson. You are quite right, I too committed a “holier than thou” fallacy. I must however correct you, I make no judgement whatsoever about the U.S., in fact I refuse to label a whole country, its people or its policies from a vantage point I have no moral right to assume. As with many of our judgements about others, we often project our own failings and shortcomings onto them. I have probably done that regarding you and for that I sincerely apologise whether you need it or not.

  13. tmac57 says:

    neilgraham-Well you almost made it that time,so I will say “Close enough” so as not to be pedantic.Apology not needed,but accepted.

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