Religion or Insanity? Two Upcoming Murder Trials Will Ask the (Burning) Question
ON October 20, the murder trial of self-proclaimed Satanist Mark Dobson will resume in Barrie, Ontario. On May 2, 2012, Dobson was discovered in a hotel room where he had drugged and killed two female acquaintances—his girlfriend and an older woman he called “mom.” He had also attempted to take his own life and allegedly told the shocked hotel staff, “I did it, it was a satanic cult thing.”
Dobson’s attorney has found three psychiatrists to testify that Dobson was not criminally responsible because he was psychotic and schizophrenic. However, Dr. Andriy Kolchak, a psychiatrist for the prosecution, has argued that Dobson was performing a ritual in accordance with his religious beliefs, and therefore was not mentally ill.
In an eerily similar case, Pamela Christensen of Montgomery, Illinois, is awaiting trial for attempting to kill her three daughters so they could “meet Jesus Christ.” Like Dobson, Christensen tried to drug and stab her loved ones before attempting to kill herself. Christensen claimed she was responding to a phone call from her husband, a pastor, who announced that the world was ending and to get the family ready.
Cases such as this raise questions that have long gone unanswered about how the state should define “religion.” By what criteria should we decide whether deviant beliefs and actions are an expression of religion or evidence of a medical problem?