Murder accused Aljar Swartz recently admitted to killing and beheading Ravensmead teenager Lee Adams in 2013 – allegedly so that he could sell his body parts to a sangoma. Swartz's defence lawyer, Sheriff Mohamed, has however since claimed that he was a satanist and killed Adams as part of a "satanistic ritual".
The case had closed, and nothing demonic had been mentioned throughout the trial. Three psychiatrists and a psychologist had also found no relevant abnormality regarding his mental capacity.
Peculiarly, his lawyer then suddenly announced that his client was infested by “demonic forces”. He requested that the court facilitate an exorcism in prison, which he would videotape and show to the judge during argument about sentencing.
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He also wanted to reopen the case to call a retired Methodist Minister who claims to be an exorcist. The Reverend Cecil Begbie (whom the lawyer described as “an internationally renowned exorcist … known all over the world for his work”) happened to have visited Swartz in prison and wanted to perform a “deliverance” session.
He wanted Begbie to testify about exorcism, and spiritual aspects of the man’s disturbances. There’s no mention of anything spiritual in the charges, the crime or the sentence, and no conceivable "spiritual excuse" for such a gruesome killing.
According to Begbie’s affidavit, Swartz told him that he was tormented by demons, that one had appeared to him in his cell as a long black lizard, which was sometimes resident in his chest and able to control him. Begbie was sure that “Satan and demonic forces had used Swartz’s body to commit the murder". "The demons are still busy with him," argued the lawyer. "The accused was but a vessel and instrument in the hand of the devil."
Curiouser and curiouser
Amazingly it then emerged that on this issue lawyer Mohamed was acting without the instructions of his client! The judge very wisely refused to re-open the case. She also remarked that while she did not doubt the Minister’s sincerity, she was not persuaded that he was an expert on Satanism, a decision which may limit his ability to give evidence later in the trial, with or without videos.
This is all distinctly odd. If Swartz did tell his lawyers all about his "demons", why on earth did they not reveal this during the trial? They would have been able to arrange any number of exorcisms there and provide the court with as many expert witnesses as they wanted.
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If they knew about this, surely they would have informed the psychologist and psychiatrists before they assessed him, so that they could take it into account.
Though Mohamed argued that psychiatrists “do not go into the realm of demonic forces and exorcism”, that’s not strictly true. Yes, an unproved and dangerous remedy like exorcism is not part of our methods, but if someone told us they experienced demonic possession or similar phenomena, we would examine the situation and seek to understand it.
We would not be gullible and assuming that there was only one possible explanation and that we were the only person able to understand or remedy it. If Swartz truly believed he was having such alarming experiences, why did he not tell the doctors or anyone else what he saw.
If he did not tell his lawyers about the demons and didn’t give them instructions to raise this with the court, how did they come to know about his "possession"? How could they have imagined an exorcist might be useful? How did they find this "internationally famous exorcist"? Did they contact him or did he contact them?
What’s the point of dragging demons into the matter at this stage? He’s already admitted the crimes and has been found guilty. And how can this change the verdict? He still committed the murder. The court must still hear arguments from both sides about sentencing, and it could have been easily introduced then. So why was the issue raised in this peculiar way?
Soup kitchen exorcist
The Reverend Cecil Begbie is best known for his work as a sometime trainer of evangelists and for running a soup kitchen about which his neighbours complained. He seems not to be particularly modest about his good deeds in these fields, so I was surprised not to find any reference on the internet (or in the Yellow Pages) to his purported activities as an exorcist.
Several possible explanations
If indeed the Cape Town beheader truly feels he is plagued by demons, there are several possible explanations. The three most plausible would be:
1. The Devil made me do it
If, for whatever reason, you have savagely killed someone, and, again for whatever reason, admitted that you did so, there’s not much open to you in the way of excuses – either to raise the faintest doubt of your guilt, or to justify any leniency in sentencing. It’s a long shot, but blaming the Devil or demons may be worth trying. It allows you to shift the blame, and if you can find a sympathetic exorcist, it might be worth your while.
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2. Ordinary psychiatric illness
A number of psychiatric disorders can mimic or produce the sort of symptoms that may be mistaken for possession. This includes schizophrenia, psychotic depression, delusional disorders and dissociative and confusional states related to a wide range of physical illness, infections and brain disorders. There are too many stories of people becoming seriously ill where exorcisms were performed without considering these possibilities.
3. Naive exorcist meets naive patient
Similar to what used to be called Multiple Personality Disorder (now called Dissociative Identity Disorder), what may appear to be possession by demons easily arises when a naive therapist who believes in the reality of possession and demons meets with either a naive person with similar beliefs, or just a naive and highly suggestible person ready to be impressed by someone who is confident of such beliefs. Even without realising it, the therapist can convincingly suggest to them what behaviour and stories are "expected" to receive a warm and sympathetic response.
Read: What you can't expect from your therapist
Obviously, in this case, the judge will decide what to make of the evidence presented and apply a reasonable sentence. After she so sensibly ruled that Begbie will not be considered an expert witness on Satanism and demons, it’s hard to see how he could now be called as a witness at all. He might offer a spiritual opinion from a religious point of view, but it’s hard to see how that could be relevant. Video material of any exorcism would also be largely irrelevant – and demons are difficult to call as witnesses.
The state of ‘expert’ evidence in SA courts
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Professor MA Simpson is Health24's CyberShrink. A South African psychiatrist, he qualified in medicine and in psychiatry in Britain. He has been a senior academic, researcher, and Professor in several countries. Read more of his columns.