Some time ago, I wrote a post titled Suffer little children about children who are allowed to suffer and even die because of the religious beliefs of their parents. I mentioned the tragic case of a woman Ria Ramkissoon with a child named Javon who in 2006 joined a Christian religious group whose leader, who called herself Queen Antoinette, demanded total obedience from her followers.
Sometime in 2007, Antoinette was angered when Javon did not say ‘Amen’ after his meals (he was just 16 months old at that time). Antoinette said that Javon was a demon and demanded that food be with held from him until he said ‘Amen’, and the mother complied with the order. The child died of starvation. Queen Antoinette said that God would bring Javon back to life but only if they had enough faith, and she ordered everyone to pray. But of course, god did nothing of the sort and as the body began decomposing, Antoinette ordered his body placed inside a suitcase where it was eventually discovered in 2008 in a storage shed.
The mother and the group’s leaders were arrested and tried and in May of 2010 were found guilty of various charges and sentenced. Ria Ramkissoon received 20 years in jail which was suspended for all except the time already served and five years probation, provided she testified against the cult leaders and undergoes long-term deprogramming and psychiatric counseling in a residential facility. As a result of her testimony, Queen Antoinette was sentenced to 50 years in prison, while her daughter Trevia Williams and aide Marcus Cobbs were sentenced to 50 years incarceration, with all but 15 years suspended.
One curiosity about the case was that the mother was willing to plead guilty only on the condition that she be allowed to withdraw her guilty plea in the event that her son was resurrected from the dead. Julie Drake, division chief in the Felony Family Violence Division of the Baltimore state’s attorney’s office and one of those who prosecuted the case, explained the prosecution’s strategy. It makes for interesting reading.
At Ms. Ramkissoon’s insistence, the court agreed that if Javon is resurrected, she can come back to court and withdraw her guilty plea.
Why did I agree to let Ms. Ramkissoon withdraw her guilty plea if Javon is resurrected? If Ms. Ramkissoon’s religious beliefs are correct, and Javon resurrects, it would be legally appropriate. That said, I do not share Ms. Ramkissoon’s religious beliefs, and I believe the likelihood of Javon’s resurrection in my lifetime is too remote to be a concern. I carefully specified on the record that this condition involved resurrection of Javon’s body — not reincarnation into another body.
Why did Ms. Ramkissoon receive probation? There are a number of reasons why one co-defendant receives a more lenient sentence than the others, several of which applied to Ms. Ramkissoon’s case.
First, it was clear to everyone that the central and most culpable defendant in this case was Queen Antoinette. She was the leader of the cult. She issued the order to withhold food and water from Javon. She warned the others not to feed Javon and removed Javon from Ms. Ramkissoon’s control. Our first priority was to convict Queen Antoinette of child abuse and murder and to secure a substantial prison term in her case. In order to do that, it was necessary to obtain eye-witness testimony, and Ms. Ramkissoon was willing to tell the truth.
Second, and equally important, I believe that justice was best served by placing Ms. Ramkissoon in a residential treatment facility rather than in prison. It was clear to everyone who interviewed Ms. Ramkissoon that she had been indoctrinated through classic “brainwashing” techniques into a cult. She had no malice or ill will toward Javon; quite the contrary, she believed Queen Antoinette was acting in his best interests. Nonetheless, she was extremely distraught when Javon began showing signs of distress. After Javon’s death, Ms. Ramkissoon spent weeks by his decomposing body, praying for his resurrection. This was not an individual who was acting out of a classic criminal intent (e.g. malice, anger, desire for revenge or gain), but rather a mother who has and will suffer anguish over the result of her inaction.
Almost everyone who hears about this case will come to the reasonable conclusion that Ramkissoon is insane for believing that there is any chance that her child will be resurrected. They will agree with Drake that she has been brainwashed by the cult. You might expect that Ramkissoon could have even been found not guilty on the basis of insanity. What other explanation could there be for someone who starves to death the child she loves, purely on the orders of someone else claiming to speak for god? But Drake provides an interesting coda on how religious delusions are treated differently from other delusions in court trials.
It should be noted that the main reason Ms. Ramkissoon was not found “not criminally responsible” is because her delusions were of a religious nature and were shared by other people; therefore they could not be classified as a “mental disorder.” (my italics)
Ramkisson’s beliefs are no different from mainstream Christianity. After all, Christians who go to church on Sunday solemnly say the words of the various creeds that outline their fundamental beliefs, all of which include expectations of their own bodily resurrection from the dead. If we consider Ramkissoon to be brainwashed and insane, why don’t we treat all Christians the same way?
This is the problem with religion in a nutshell. To the extent that anyone believes in the resurrection of the dead, they too have been brainwashed, just like Ramkissoon. But because mainstream religious beliefs, even crazy ones, are stamped with the label ‘religion’ and shared by many other people, they are not considered to be mental disorders.
One of the main effects of religion is to launder insane ideas into mainstream acceptance. But in order to do so, religious people have to create a consciously hypocritical world. They have to say they believe in things that one has to be clearly insane to believe in (like that dead bodies will come back to life) while at the same time find ways to discourage those who might actually consider acting on the basis of those beliefs.
No civilized society would be possible if large numbers of people actually acted on the basis of all their religious doctrines. Fortunately for us, civilized societies base their laws largely on science and secular values.