Saturday, December 27, 2008

Religion and Murder

I'm just finishing one of Ann Rule's great books on real life murders. I also reread this morning of the tragic case of Andrea Yates, who drowned her five small children in the bathtub.

I'm compelled to write about the connection between religion and the insane people who murder because of their religious beliefs. Some of Ms. Rule's stories are of people who are truly insane and commit murder because their religious beliefs have driven them, in their very sick minds, to murder, often of their own families, including children. I want to say that I do not believe that people who are severely psychotic should receive prison sentences. I believe that when they are very ill, are truly "out of their minds", that they cannot be guilty of a crime that they would never consider, much less perform, when of sound mind.

That said, it is astonishing how many psychotic murderers believe they are possessed by the devil, or ordered by their god to kill, usually to "protect" their innocent children. This is a perfect example of the damage that religion does to people, the deeply ingrained belief that their spiritual lives, and those of their loved ones, depend on obeying god and resisting satan.

I am not saying that religion causes murder. Not at all. But it has been shown to be an impetus for some unstable people to worry about to the point of obsession. If their religious beliefs are coupled with depression and any other psychosis, the obsession with the well-being of their souls and those of their families becomes overwhelming. Often times they meet with their pastor or bishop or elder, men who have no clue to the psychological and psychiatric workings of a sick mind. Sadly, these well-intentioned clergymen may make fatally flawed suggestions that drive a psychotic to a point of no return.

Andrea Yates is a perfect example. This woman had at least a two year history of mental illness triggered by postpartum psychosis, a much more serious illness than post-partum depression, which is itself very serious. She was in and out of mental health care, off and on multiple medications, and had five children, three still in diapers. Andrea and her husband Rusty were followers of a small, extreme church that impressed upon them the seriousness of parenting in a manner that would prevent their children from following down a crooked path to hell. The Yates's oldest child was only 11, the youngest a few months old. But Andrea, after her fifth child, sank deep into a postpartum psychosis that caused her to obsess about being a bad mother, about saving her children's souls, thus ensuring their place in heaven with god.

Andrea Yates had a lot of people fail her, including her last doctor. Nevertheless, had she not been involved with this church, with a pastor who frightened his parishioners about their children's salvation, she would not have become obsessed with heaven and hell and murdered her beloved children to protect their innocence. That is, if she was not involved in any religion whatsoever. She was very mentally ill, yes, but her insane reason for drowning her children would have been absent. Andrea was initially found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. Her dauntless attorney worked to get her a new trial, where she was found guilty by reason of insanity, which has allowed Andrea to get the mental help she so desperately needed.

Another case that demonstrates this tragic result is that of a woman Ann Rule calls "Christine Jonsen". This tragic Mormon woman fell deeper and deeper into psychosis after her husband left her with two small children to care for. She feared she would hurt her children and spoke to her church elders, begging them to take the children out of her home and place them with a church family for their own protection. The elders persuaded her ("gently") to keep them; they needed their mother. Of course, "Christine" agonized that she was a "son of perdition", or an anti-Christ person who is closely associated with Satan, a grave condition in the Mormon church. Furthermore, the Mormon church teaches that children who die before their eighth birthday are assured a place in god's "celestial kingdom", the highest realm of heaven attainable, and dreamed of by all Mormons.

"Christine" drowned her two small boys to usher them to the celestial kingdom. She was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. She initially went into a secure treatment center, and what happened to her from there is not known. This was a clear case of a severely disturbed woman who should not have been sent to prison, but rather received long term treatment. Sadly,it was the intense religion-based guilt that drove her to send her kids to heaven. They are not in heaven, they are simply murdered and dead.

The tragedy of these two stories hurts my very heart, not only for the innocent victims of insane mothers, but also by the victimization of these kind, loving and caring mothers by religious beliefs that drove them to murder.

I am well aware that there are insane people who murder without a religious foundation. These people, too, deserve treatment, not prison. However, the vast majority of stories I follow about truly psychotic mothers and fathers who kill their kids are driven by the twisted tenets of their beliefs.

Just so I am understood, I want to point out that I do not hold these views for people who are not insane, delusional or psychotic. People who plot, plan and carefully carry out murder are the lowest of the low in my opinion, and do not deserve to live in an open society. Let's not mix the two groups of murderers; they are extremely different in circumstance.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Innocent convicts enjoy Christmas of freedom

I've just received a letter via The Innocence Project from Steve Barnes, who was exonerated by DNA evidence after being in prison for twenty years for a murder he had nothing to do with. He was released shortly before Thanksgiving 2008 and is spending a very happy Christmas with his family for the first time in two decades. Read his story here:

Another man on Death Row, Paul House, has been released on bail pending a new trial. Evidence clearly shows that he will be exonerated. Paul has been on Death Row for 22 years for a murder he didn't commit. Read his story here:

These two very disturbing stories are tragically common for exonerated convicts and for those who still languish in prison for crimes they would not be convicted of today. Almost every story I read about that involves an innocent man being convicted of a heinous crime occurred 18 to twenty five years ago. Of course, this was before DNA evidence allowed investigators to pin down with finer precision the guilt or innocence of a suspect.

Fortunately for those innocents who are lucky enough to have The Innocence Project review their cases, DNA evidence is now allowing the determination of a truth of innocence these convicts have always professed. While true criminals usually deserve the sentences they receive, no innocent deserved a false conviction. There are hundreds of men and women in prisons and on Death Row who appeal to The Innocence Project for assistance or a review of their cases. Unfortunately, there is just not enough manpower or money to help them all. It's luck of the draw, or a very loud voice, that can attract enough attention to be fortunate enough to receive this free legal help.

Unfortunately, many of these convicts are in prison or on Death Row because of overzealous, corrupt, or just plain bad cops, prosecutors, and investigators. The great thing is, we should be seeing fewer of these types of convictions because DNA evidence has tremendously advanced the ability to prove one's innocence. Yes, that's right. Sadly, it is not guilt that must be proven in many of these cases, but innocence. That's one of the problems of our judicial system. In this day of swift and harsh convictions, the suspect is in a position of having to prove innocence rather than the other way around, as dictated by our founding fathers.

At trial the suspect must pay for their own DNA testing, even if it is provided by the prosecution. This is because even experts can be corrupt, although there are many fine scientists working in the field of forensics. This testing starts at $5,000 for a single test. Yes, $5,000. Often times more than one test is required, as there can be several samples to test: skin, semen, hair, saliva, and blood. You can see that the defense of an innocent man or woman can cost an exorbitant amount; hence the common convictions of innocent people. They simply can't afford to properly defend themselves.

This is a topic that we must all become concerned about. Not just for the protection of our rights, but because of the gross injustice done to fellow human beings. These people are husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers. They are not throwaway people.

Please consider donating to The Innocence Project if you care about justice in our country. This horrible situation could happen to someone you know, or even you. Contact The Innocence Project at

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Atheist and the Holidays

Here we are in holiday time again. As an atheist, I often get asked why I celebrate Christmas. Well, I don't celebrate Christmas. But I do have a tree, give gifts, decorate my house, and have people over for a nice holiday dinner. None of these things are religious.

In our culture, it is impossible to escape the holiday season. Atheists can certainly enjoy the atmosphere of love and closeness to family and friends, the gentle kindnesses that are abundant this time of year, and the gathering of said family and friends around a festive tree, logs ablaze in the fireplace, and abundant food for all. This is not exclusive to religion.

I have not celebrated "Christmas" for many years. I do not recognize God or Jesus as anything but mythical beliefs. I did not arrive at this conclusion lightly. After many years of searching for truth, I slowly came to the realization that nothing supernatural in the religious realm makes any logical sense. As a rational thinker, I cannot pretend to believe what I consider magical thinking, the self-fooling that religious people undertake. I traveled many roads to come to my own conclusion that there is simply no reason, no logical, rational reason, to believe in any supernatural power that has no proof of its existence.

I still enjoy my decorated tree, my festive home, and look forward to enjoying the company of family and friends on Thursday. I will be celebrating love and warmth, peace and kindness, and the Winter Solstice, which recognizes the sun's lowest point in the sky for the year. The solstice portends the depths of winter to come: cold, darkness and dreary weather, nature closing up shop for the season. This is one of the most important seasons for nature, for it gives all living things time to slow down, reflect, come indoors, sleep more, eat hearty and heavy foods, and rest up for the rebirth to come on March 22, the Spring Equinox.

Yes, atheists can enjoy this holiday season as much as any religious people do. After all, Winter Solstice was the non-religious celebration that was usurped by the early Christians to tempt people to their new religion.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Innocent Man

Whew! It's not often I read a book straight through in two days. But I could not put down "The Innocent Man" by John Grisham, his first non-fiction book. It focuses primarily on Ron Williamson, a mentally ill man who was railroaded onto Death Row for a crime with which he had no involvement. Ron was convicted, along with his friend Dennis Fritz, on extremely shoddy police work, a corrupt prosecutor, testimony from jailhouse snitches, and a less than adequate defense attorney. Dennis received life in prison.

The book inspired a wide variety of feelings in me: disbelief, disgust, fear, anger, dismay, distrust, and a deep sadness, for starters. I have long been interested in The Innocence Project, a national organization whose sole purpose is to use DNA analysis to exonerate innocent men and women who are serving time for crimes they did not commit. Some of these people have been sentenced to life in prison; others are on Death Row, as Ron Williamson was, and as Tommy Ward and Kurt Fontenot continue to be.

Tommy and Kurt have been in prison for 22 years. They were railroaded by the same prosecutor who won convictions for Dennis and Ron, with the same unethical practices and complete absence of evidence. They are completely innocent of the crime for which they have been convicted. Gresham writes about them in his book, as well.

While I am a proponent of just sentences for heinous crimes, I cannot support the conviction of innocents just to solve a crime. This is what happens in many of these cases. It can be difficult to feel compassion for people in this position once one starts to read about them. Perhaps they were already criminals, petty or otherwise. Perhaps they have drug and/or alcohol problems. Perhaps they're not people who inspire sympathy from others. Nevertheless, for our judicial system to maintain integrity and the trust of the public, we must believe that our system works. Therefore we must monitor our justice system ourselves, and fix corruption when it is exposed. It can never be just to convict any innocent person of any crime, even if they are unsavory people.

If this is a topic that you would like to learn more about, I suggest Gresham's book, as well as Dennis Fritz's personal account of his 12 years in prison and the long, bleak road he took to regain his freedom. His book is titled "Journey Toward Justice". You may also want to check out for information on this ground-breaking organization.

As American citizens, we must police our justice system by ensuring that innocent people are not convicted of crimes they did not commit. This injustice can happen to anyone, as you will read in the pages of Grisham's and Fritz's books. It's emotional reading, but we must not ignore the very real threats to our liberty and those of our fellow Americans.


Welcome to my blog, A Rational Spotlight. I intend to discourse on a variety of subjects that interest me, including atheism and why it is important to me; justice, particularly related to men and women who have been convicted of serious crimes when all evidence points to their innocence; equality for all, including gays, lesbians, races, handicaps,etc.; and various other and sundry things as they come up. I'll probably throw in a little of my life as well, when something interesting happens.

I pledge to write frequently, at least once a week. I hope you come back to my blog regularly for interesting, perhaps controversial, reading. I welcome comments, feedback and topic suggestions, and intend to read them all.

Thanks for taking the time to check out my blog. I hope you find food for thought that will spark further conversation on important topics.