Toddler death case goes to jury; Across the nation, ‘the devil made me do it,’ some suspects want courts to believe
“The devil made me do it” may seem as clichéd as “the dog ate my homework,” but in courtrooms across the country, the excuse pops up more often than you might think.
Take Anthony Juarez. The 42-year-old former Salinas hardwood floor installer is accused of killing his 2-year-old son in 1988 and then telling his wife he did it while possessed by the devil.
And just three weeks ago, an 85-year-old Florida man was charged with attempted first-degree murder after authorities said he slashed his married daughter with a kitchen knife in Hernando County, near Tampa.
When his daughter asked him why he stabbed her, Jaime Rivera-Tosado said, “The devil is in me. The devil made me do it,” according to The Tampa Tribune.
Juarez’s lawyer, Arthur Kaufmann, did not blame demonic possession for the death of Anthony Jr., but the matter did come up during the second-degree murder trial that ended Monday in Monterey County court.
In the end, Kaufmann told jurors that involuntary manslaughter would be the appropriate charge for his client. The toddler died in 1988, but there was not enough evidence to try Juarez at the time. Then, Juarez confessed to his wife in 1991, saying he killed his son because the devil commanded it — but she did not reveal the admission to police until 2002.
He now claims he was drunk. Jurors heard closing arguments in the case Monday and began deliberations, which continue today.
The “devil made me do it” defense has been adopted as legal phraseology for any occasion when a defendant tries to excuse his or her actions by blaming something beside themselves. Twinkies, abusive parents and demonic control all have gotten major play in a number of high-profile cases, and now prosecutors and legal experts point to it as a trend in defense strategy.
“Now we blame more modern things,” said Terry Spitz, chief assistant Monterey County district attorney. “But, generally, if you’ve got someone who is earnestly talking about the devil … and you have some tape that shows there is probably some mental illness, then I know I am not really preparing for discussion of religious views but actually for some psychiatric or clinical issues.”
Spitz mentioned the 1978 Dan White case in San Francisco in which the former county supervisor shot and killed Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk in City Hall. White later used what became known as “the Twinkie defense” when he claimed sugar from junk food had put him in a “diminished capacity” when he committed the crime.
Spitz said he’s worked in the district attorney’s office for 25 years and can’t remember a single case in which a defendant blamed the devil for the crime. But in 1980, he did prosecute a man who said he killed his ex-girlfriend because she was a sorcerer.
Celebrity Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz, who represented O.J. Simpson among others, wrote an entire book on the subject: “The Abuse Excuse: Cop-outs, Sob Stories and Other Evasions of Responsibility.”
Even in this year’s high-profile Laci Peterson case, defense attorneys for Scott Peterson are planning to present a theory that would place the blame for her death on a “satanic cult.”
In the famous Son of Sam ritualistic killings in New York in summer of 1977, David Berkowitz never directly fingered the devil, but he claimed to communicate with talking dogs and was forced to kill by his “father” who was named “Sam.”
Wayne Clark, director of behavioral health for Monterey County, said that when a defendant claims “the devil made me do it,” a forensic psychiatrist needs to be called in to determine the mental health of the accused.
“Someone needs to be brought in to see if (the suspect) has all the faculties needed to make that judgment and has intent and can understand the consequences,” Clark said. “The real issue is whether the person that is committing the act either had a psychiatric disorder or not.”