When God Demands Blood: Unusual Minds and the Troubled Juridical Ties of Religion, Madness, and Culpability

BY RABIA BELT, 69 U. Miami L. Rev. 755 (2015).

Introduction: When Robert Crenshaw and his wife were on their honeymoon in Canada in 1982, Robert got into a fight and was deported back to the United States. He found a motel room just across the border in Blaine, Washington and waited for his wife. Upon her arrival two days later, Robert had the immediate suspicion that she had been unfaithful, that “‘it wasn’t the same Karen . . . she’d been with someone else.’” Robert “took [his wife] to the motel room and beat her unconscious.” He then went to a store, stole a knife, and stabbed her twenty-four times. After stabbing her, Robert left his now-dead wife, drove to a farm where he had previously worked, and borrowed an ax. When he returned to the motel room, Robert decapitated Karen.

After being apprehended by police, Robert voluntarily confessed and claimed that he thought it was his duty as a Moscovite to kill Karen, whom he believed had been unfaithful. At trial, the court faced a quandary: were Crenshaw’s actions religious or insane? And what did the answer say about his criminal responsibility? When Robert was apprehended and charged with first-degree murder, he argued that he should be found not guilty by reason of insanity. The case ultimately reached the Washington Supreme Court, which upheld his first-degree murder conviction. The dilemma divided the justices, who, like so many jurists before, struggled to draw sensible boundaries and bridges between faith, madness, and responsibility. The legal system was forced to grapple with a doctrine that was making its reappearance in criminal trials after a long absence: the doctrine of deific decree.

Unusual minds that turn violent raise some of the most difficult questions of criminal responsibility. When aberrant thoughts take on a religious cast, the problem becomes even more complex, as judges must determine whether religious fervor has slipped into mental illness and what impact this mental state has on culpability. This article traces judicial attempts to navigate three paradigms for understanding abnormal thoughts—religion, psychiatry, and criminal law—by examining the 170-year history of a doctrine predicated upon their collision. The defense of deific decree holds that if God commanded a defendant to kill another person, then the defendant can successfully plead not guilty by reason of insanity to first-degree murder. Although the basic statement of the doctrine has changed little across its long existence, its operation and underlying theory have shifted considerably as the social, judicial, and scientific understandings of religion, mental illness, and criminality between which the doctrine mediates have themselves undergone transformations.

Three stages animate this article. First, the emergence and early articulation of deific decree doctrine (1844–1915) illustrates the extent to which Christianity bound together judicial and psychiatric notions of religion, mental illness, and culpability during the formative years of what came to be the modern insanity defense. Second, in the nearly eight decades that followed, from 1915 to 1982, the judiciary expanded its conceptions of insanity and religion in ways that untethered mental illness, culpability, and religion from Christian norms. These years saw the deific decree defense recede in deference to more capacious definitions of insanity. Third, as the insanity defense narrowed following the 1982 acquittal of John Hinckley by reason of insanity for shooting Ronald Reagan, deific decree defenses reemerged. These twinned developments illuminate the extent to which the Court’s reinterpretation of religion as a personal choice put faith on a collision course with culpability—and the free will presumed to underlie it.

The protagonists of this history are the experts. As judges who specialize in questions of culpability have confronted defendants who perceive otherworldly commands, they have had to make choices about the extent to which they will draw on and defer to theologians and psychiatrists. As the mental health field professionalized and courts increasingly sought to avoid entanglement with religion, judges asked psychiatrists to carry more of the burden of explanation within the judicial system, and psychiatrists willingly accepted. Ironically, as psychiatrists increasingly claimed the ability to map out normal and abnormal human behavior, their skill at capturing the impact of religion and culture on behavior diminished. As expert mental-health testimony became pervasive, it provided ever less guidance to judges seeking to navigate religious compulsion and culpability.

Discussing religion as a concern of criminal law rather than as the subject of First Amendment litigation relieves the tensions that this article explores. Too often, baroque First Amendment doctrine encourages scholars to treat collisions between law and religion as doctrinal brainteasers solvable through clever analysis rather than as emblematic of deep, unresolvable tensions. Here, the criminal context makes visible how legal conceptions of religion respond to and collide with shifts in popular ideas and expert knowledge. Although modern First Amendment law seeks to construct a firm divide between rationalist legal reasoning and humanistic religious faith, this neat dichotomy collapses in deific decree cases. Courts cannot evaluate deific decree claims without consideration of defendants’ beliefs. Defendants and their lawyers encourage this entanglement by renouncing claims that the killer was a modern-day Joan of Arc on a prophetic divine saintly mission that has a rational basis. Instead, they argue that the defendant both believed himself compelled to act by divine instruction and that the defendant’s perception of that divine instruction was mistaken and insane.

This article proceeds as follows. Part II examines the origins of deific decree doctrine, which was christened into U.S. law by the Massachusetts Supreme Court in 1844. The same case that introduced the deific decree doctrine to the United States also spawned the “right-wrong” test that deemed defendants insane if at the time of doing the act they did not know the difference between right and wrong. Deific decree, therefore, operated from the outset in relation to the right-wrong test—its better-known fraternal twin. The right-wrong test represented an exception to the general criminal law presumption that people exercise free will and so can be held responsible for their illegal behavior. Depending upon the court, the test has been understood to require that a defendant be unable to comprehend either the illegality of his actions or the social opprobrium that others will attach to them. Deific decree also covered a potential third case: the defendant who felt compelled by divinity to act despite knowing that doing so would bring legal sanction and societal condemnation.

Explicitly framed in Judeo-Christian terms—the doctrine requires an order from God, not a supernatural entity in general—deific decree reflected the prevailing sentiment among leading Americans that divine law reigned supreme above human law. For psychiatrists still seeking to establish themselves within their field, the expansion of the insanity defense presented opportunities; defendants who might become patients of their asylums, forums in which to appear as high-profile experts, and audiences for their theories linking mental illness and sin. Such testimony, in turn, reassured jurists that criminality would beget punishment. Divine lawbreakers, psychiatric testimony reassured, were punished by God with the affliction of madness, would face confinement in institutions, and often suffered internally for having committed violent acts. Judges’ almost pathological rehearsals of the story of Abraham and Isaac—and their grim imaginings of the consequences of a sacrifice not aborted by God—further emphasized jurists’ concern that bad acts not go unpunished. . . . Full Article.

Recommended Citation: Rabia Belt, When God Demands Blood: Unusual Minds and the Troubled Juridical Ties of Religion, Madness, and Culpability, 69 U. Miami L. Rev. 755 (2015).

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