An American lawyer has been convicted of money laundering after a trial disrupted by allegations that voodoo magic was being used to influence the outcome.
Judge Patricia Seitz was forced to order extraordinary security measures at a Florida court building during the trial of Juan Carlos Elso after the veteran prosecution lawyer, Richard Gregorie, complained that his clothes were being ruined by voodoo powder.
The debonair Mr Gregorie complained to the judge that his dry-cleaning bills had become worryingly onerous as the trial progressed, apparently because someone was scattering a good luck charm on his chair and in his files of evidence.
Famed for his eloquence, Mr Gregorie pleaded for judicial intercession. “It’s the Santeria dust, Your Honour,” he said, referring to the animist religion popular in Cuba. His prosecuting colleague showed Judge Seitz a large quantity of the grey dust collected from evidence boxes. Judge Seitz ordered that the court be vacuumed to clean up the powder and also locked during each recess.
Outside the court, followers of Santeria played down the ominous overtones of the incident, pointing out that white powder can only be used to bring good luck and speculated that it was being spread around the court to sway the jury and the judge in favour of the accused. If that was the case, it was singularly unsuccessful: the jury found Elso guilty on three counts of laundering hundreds of dollars for cocaine-running clients.
Miami styles itself “Magic City”, such is the prevalence of outlandish beliefs in its suburbs, so the case raised few eyebrows outside the legal profession, which was shocked that the practice had penetrated the venerable halls presided over by Judge Seitz. The federal courthouse is rarely afflicted by black magic whereas the state criminal courthouse nearby is known as a hotbed of such practices.
Housed in a building at the corner where 13th Street meets 13th Avenue, the state court even has a janitorial crew dubbed “the Voodoo Squad” to remove various items of sacrifice including chickens, roosters and goats as well as mysterious candle formations.
Indeed, voodoo was also playing a key role in a case there, even as Mr Gregorie was demanding that all trace of the black arts be expunged from the federal court. Emmanuel Etienne, a 29-year-old Haitian charged with the second-degree murder of his girlfriend, Vayola Hercules, 31, was using the influence of voodoo in his defence.
The police case against him was outlined as a straightforward crime of passion. Furious that his girlfriend was having an affair, Etienne had allegedly shot and killed Vayola after a row. Then he turned the gun on himself but survived.
Three alleged confessions were presented in court but Etienne has attempted to blame Vayola’s first husband, a Haitian who allegedly has the ability to turn himself into an armed but headless donkey. This remarkable feat is achieved by, as one of the doctors delicately put it, “expelling three flatulents”.
This beast is said to have killed Vayola, then forced Etienne to write a confession in lipstick on the bedroom wall, telephone two Haitian women to confess and then put a bullet into his forehead.
Two doctors brought in by the court have judged Etienne mentally fit to stand trial but two others have advised that he be remanded to a psychiatric institution. A fifth expert is being brought in later this month to cast the deciding vote.