Religion and Legal Insanity

You may remember a
story
from last year about a 16-month-old infant who was starved to death by
his mother for not saying “Amen” at mealtime. Today’s
Post has a
followup.

The story is ghastly and appalling, and the mother is obviously crazy
by any reasonable definition of the term. But that doesn’t mean that
she’s legally insane:

Tomorrow, five of the group’s alleged members — including the boy’s mother, Ria Ramkissoon — are scheduled to be tried in Baltimore on murder charges. Sources and Ramkissoon’s mother said Ramkissoon, 22, has agreed to plead guilty to a lesser charge on one condition: The charges against her must be dropped if her son, Javon Thompson, is resurrected.

Psychiatrists who evaluated Ramkissoon at the request of a judge concluded that she was not criminally insane. Her attorney, Steven Silverman, said the doctors found that her beliefs were indistinguishable from religious beliefs, in part because they were shared by those around her.

“She wasn’t delusional, because she was following a religion,” Silverman said, describing the findings of the doctors’ psychiatric evaluation.
[…]

Silverman said he and prosecutors think Ramkissoon was brainwashed and should have been found not criminally responsible; prosecutors declined to comment. Although an inability to think critically can be a sign of brainwashing, experts said, the line between that and some religious beliefs can be difficult to discern.

“At times there can be an overlap between extreme religious conviction and delusion,” said Robert Jay Lifton, a cult expert and psychiatrist who lectures at Harvard Medical School. “It’s a difficult area for psychiatry and the legal system.”

(emphasis added.)

This is one of those areas that can keep legal scholars arguing far
into the night. On one hand, religious beliefs enjoy special
protection under US law. Crazy beliefs do not. So what about crazy
religious beliefs? And where does one draw the line?

One obvious place is between beliefs that cause harm, and those that
don’t. Of course, this ignores things like the pope’s and the Russian
Orthodox church’s pronouncements that condoms make the AIDS problem
worse. The problem there, as
Calli Arcale pointed out,
is that while the people who make these statements don’t actually want
people to die, that is the inevitable, demonstrable outcome
of their beliefs. (Of course, one could draw a similar line from a
belief like “healthcare should be entirely in the hands of the free
market, free from government interference” to people dying from lack
of medical attention; but with any luck, a person holding such an
opinion could be persuaded by empirical evidence).

Sorry for just trailing off at the end like this, but I’m still aghast at this whole situation.

(HT D. Edward Farrar.)

Update, Mar. 30: Given the number of times I’ve been told that right and wrong come only from religion, I wouldn’t think there’d be any gray area between religion and insanity. And yet there is. Go figure.

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