Witch Hunting in the 21st Century

The Hammer of Witches, commissioned by Pope Innocent VIII and published in 1486, was the definitive witch-hunting guide of medieval Europe. It contained everything from how to go about identifying, trying, and torturing a witch to questions of whether or not witches had the ability to “remove the male organ” (the consensus was yes, they could). While the entire text is horrifying, perhaps the most insidious outcome of its dissemination was the rampant fear-mongering over women’s sexuality: “…all witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable“. The text also emphasized women’s natural inclination (and skill) at deception: although the authors caution judges hearing a witch’s case to first test her ability to cry (witches are not able) they also note “…it might suit with the devil’s cunning, with God’s permission, to allow even a witch to weep; since tearful grieving, weaving and deceiving are said to be proper to women.” It’s easy to dismiss this text – and sentiment—as a relic of a long-departed misogynistic past. Witch hunts were borne out of a tangled web of fright and superstition, most notably the fear of women’s sexual power over men. Why is it, then, that these same notions are brought into courtrooms more than half a millennium later?

Of the 312 individuals who have been proven innocent by DNA evidence in the United States, just four are women. The majority of DNA cases involve rapes or violent physical struggles, crimes typically perpetrated by men. These numbers don’t mean that women aren’t suffering through wrongful incarceration, too—they are, but the dearth of exculpatory DNA in their cases usually means that their path to freedom is considerably more daunting than that of their male counterparts. When other supporting evidence is scant, aggressive sexual desire is often given as a motive in cases where women are accused of serious crimes. (This conspicuous lack of evidence is a common occurrence; in over half of the cases involving wrongfully convicted women, the “crime” in question did not even occur.) In an approach more reminiscent of the Salem Witch Trials than 21st century courtrooms, criminal trials tend to represent female sexuality as an undetonated explosive: volatile, violent, impossible to control.

Let’s examine the stories of two well-known wrongly convicted women: Amanda Knox and Elizabeth Ramirez. Their respective trials took place in different countries, over a decade apart, but the two cases are bound by some recurring themes: women accused of heinous crimes, based entirely on circumstantial evidence, fed off of imaginary dangers and real prejudice. In the words of one of the trial lawyers prosecuting American college student Knox, accused of murdering her roommate while studying abroad in Italy, she was a “demonic, Satanic, diabolical she-devil”, devoted to “lust, drugs and alcohol”. Fourteen years earlier and an ocean away in Texas, a prosecutor who worked to convict Elizabeth Ramirez, a young lesbian woman on trial for the alleged sexual assault of her nieces, told jurors that “We’re going to ask you to believe a 9-year-old little girl was sacrificed on the altar of lust.”

In Texas, Elizabeth Ramirez and three other women were convicted of sexually assaulting Ramirez’s two young nieces. The 1994 trials largely hinged on the testimony of the two accusers, who testified that Ramirez and three of her friends called them into an apartment where they were drinking and smoking marijuana, pinned them down, and proceeded to sexually assault them with a variety of objects. All four women consistently maintained their innocence. When Ramirez was brought to trial, there was a mountain of exculpatory evidence not brought to the jury’s attention, the most crucial being the testimony of the accusers’ mother, who stated that the two had a history of making baseless claims of sexual abuse.

Dr. Nancy Kellogg, the doctor (a Texas board-certified pediatrician, for what it’s worth) who examined the two girls after they made their first allegations of abuse gave a diagnosis of “satanic-related sexual abuse” in her official medical report, despite there being no physical evidence to corroborate the bizarre claim. At trial, when the defense asked Dr. Kellogg what her professional justification for identifying the alleged abuse as satanic or cult-related was, she said “…My research and experience in this area…If there is a female perpetrator and there’s more than one perpetrator involved, there is a concern for that…”

Ramirez and her three co-defendants spent nearly two decades in prison before the two accusers recanted their testimony in 2012, admitting that the assaults never took place. Dr. Kellogg recanted her medical testimony soon after, saying that she could not state with “any degree of medical certainty” that an attack had occurred.

The prosecution in Amanda Knox’s case immediately seized upon the baseless theory that her roommate Meredith Kercher’s murder was the result of a “cultish sex-game” gone horribly awry. Salacious evidence of Knox’s sexuality—she owned condoms and a vibrator, extraneous facts which were discussed ad nauseum—was presented in court; the whole case was viewed almost entirely through the prism of her physical appearance and sexual identity. Her co-defendant, ex-boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito, was portrayed as a lovelorn fool, so ensconced in Knox’s bewitching sexual prowess that he would murder if she asked him to.

Despite a small mountain of physical evidence pointing to a different sole perpetrator (among other things, Rudy Guede left fingerprints, footprints, and his DNA at the scene of the crime) Knox and Sollecito are in the midst of their fourth set of legal proceedings in the case. The fact that their acquittals were overturned at all underscores the Italian authorities’ attachment to the misogynist circus that the case has become.

Knox and Ramirez are both innocent. They both shared the same incredible misfortune of becoming ensnared in headline-grabbing criminal cases with (vaguely hysterical) sexist undercurrents. But even for the women who are guilty of their crimes, there should be no place for modern-day witch hunts in the legal system.

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