Episode 36 - He's Not The Messiah, He's a Very Naughty Serial Killer (The Law Week)
Updated: Apr 18
Sam's Episode Notes: God in court – a little divine intervention
I was so inspired by last week's episode on the Papacy that I thought I'd take it one step further, and talk about a few times God, or the Gods, have ended up in court themselves. Sometimes as defendants, sometimes as plaintiffs, and occasionally as witnesses.
So, on our magical mystery world tour, we start off in Ancient Greece with the odd case of the woman who stripped her way to freedom. Because it's no crime to look this good, Tom. And I promise this is the only rude one.
Mnesarete, also Phryne or 'toad' due to her yellowish complexion – yes, it's all going well in th elooks department so far – was a courtesan in Athens in the 4th century BC. She was a famous beauty, as her nickname and jaundiced hue would suggest, and was supposedly the lover of the Greek sculptor Praxilites, and inspiration for the first ever statues of naked women we know from Greece as well as the inspiration for the appearance of the Goddess Aphrodite.
At some point in her life, we're not entirely sure when, it all went wrong, though. She found herself accused of impiety or behaving in a way that would displease the Gods. Now, in Ancient Greece, pleasing the Gods was everything. It was the difference between a good harvest or a bad one, having healthy children, winning wars and everything in between. And so doing anything to piss them off was a big no-no. In fact it was a capital offence, carrying the death penalty.
Phryne found herself in court for impiety. We don't know exactly what she did, but it wasn't looking good. And so, legend has it that as a last ditch defence, her lawyer, the orator Hyperides, came up with a plan. A cunning plan, with depth and layers. A 3D chess game. And that plan was this, Tom.
He pulled off her robe, revealing her tits to the courtroom. And yes, there's lots of renaissance paintings of men leching over her. And it worked! The argument was that such beauty could only have been a gift from Aphrodite herself, and that Phryne was therefore a prophet of beauty. Since she was chosen by the Gods to represent beauty on Earth, she couldn't possibly be guilty of displeasing them with impious behaviour. Bearing in mind the jurors were all men. And the dirty old bastards let her go. Now, this version of the story is a little doubtful. We do believe the trial happened, but it's likely the stripping was added later for satirical purposes, to show the Athenian elite as foolish old lechers who'd do anything for a grope. But it's a great story nonetheless.
Next up, we're heading to Britain in 1378, for a very quick look at the odd history of British blasphemy laws. Specifically, blasphemous libel, or slandering God's reputation. Blasphemy is just shouting God damn it when you stub your toe, and was a serious offence that could have had you flogged for hundreds of years. Blasphemous libel was very different – that was bringing God into disrepute and spreading lies about him. And that was a lot more serious.
Because clearly, God needs some folk on Earth to defend his good name and confirm that yes, launching this crusade and massacring those heretics is exactly what he wanted to happen and that yes, that hailstorm was caused by the old lady down the road who is definitely a witch. God may be Omniscient and Omnipotent but he can't be everywhere all the time.
Unfortunately, the only thing the bishops could do to blasphemers was excommunicate them, which wasn't much of a threat to athiests and heretics. They needed something a little more spicy. And do they forged an Act of Parliament. And they literally forged it – writing it up for royal ascent without getting the permission of the house of commons or the house of lords, and threatening anyone who tried to have the law repealed with, erm, blasphemy charges. So by 1400 the laws were so strict that anyone convicted of heresy could be burned at the stake. In fact, the clergy had been burning people at the stake for a long time before that without legal permission, but, you know, Gods will.
But this was all still ecclesiastical law, which meant law policed by the church, and over time it became more of a common law idea, which means it was for the normal courts to decide on blasphemy cases. That didn't mean the punishments were any less horrific though. In 1656 during the time of Cromwell and the puritans, a quaker called James Naylor was convicted of blasphemy for re-enacting Christ's palm Sunday by entering Bristol on a horse as part of a protest against the slave trade and fencing off of common land by wealthy lords. Can you imagine anything less Christian? Quite. He was sentenced by a judge to be pillioried or put in the stocks, branded on the forehead with a B for Blasphemer, have his tongue pierced with a red hot poker, and then sentenced to hard labour for life. Lovely.
By this time of course, all the good Christians were Anglican, so you could slag off Catholic God to your heart's content. It was only the good old English God whose delicate reputation as a cuddly, forgiving and all-loving father figure needed protecting with torture and mutilation.
And speaking ill of God could get you in trouble far more recently than you'd think. The blasphemy laws in England and Wales were only lifted in 2008, and still apply in Northern Ireland and Scotland, though they aren't used any more. The last person to be jailed in the UK for blasphemy was in 1921, when a man called John William Gott was prosecuted for publishing satirical pamphlets entitled Rib Ticklers, or Questions for Parsons and God and Gott, in which he presented Jesus as a circus clown. This was his fourth blasphemy conviction and so he was sentenced to nine months hard labour, despite being critically and terminally ill. He survived his sentence but died shortly after, causing public outrage. And even in 1976, infamous prude and anti-filth activist Mary Whitehouse who famously got sex and swearing banned on TV in the UK sued the Gay News for publishing James Kirkrup's poem 'The Love That Dare Not Speak It's Name'. It was a blasphemy case, and she won – the Gay Times' editor Denis Lemon was given a suspended jail sentence and fined.
Even as late as 2005, private cases were bought against the BBC for blasphemy when it showed Gerry Springer the Opera, although the laws were so out of date it was decided they couldn't be applied to TV scripts. So the courts have been defending God for a very, VERY long time.
Anyway, now we're heading to the US, for the unusual case of the man who sued Satan for being a dick.
Mayo vs Satan and his staff is a case from Pennsylvania 1971. Gerald Mayo was a 22 year-old inmate at the Western Penitentiary in Pittsburgh. He sued the Devil, for, alleging that, quote: “Satan has on numerous occasions caused the plaintiff misery and unwarranted threats, against the will of the plaintiff, that Satan has placed deliberate obstacles in his path and has caused the plaintiffs downfall” which had resulted in his becoming incarcerated and losing his constitutional rights.
Specifically, he wasn't suing the prison for keeping him locked up and depriving him of liberty, he was suing Satan and his little helpers for putting him there in the first place. Hilariously, he also filed a suit claiming that he was too poor to fight the legal case himself, and so asked the state to waive his legal fees if the case went ahead. Which it didn't, BUT there was a genuine, full legal finding on the case. The judge, a man called Gerald Weber, decided that there was no precedent for suing Satan, but that there were unofficial accounts of earlier trials in New Hampshire where it had been decided that Satan was an American. However, it was more likely that he should be classified as a foreign prince, and therefore receive sovereign immunity from prosecution.
Furthermore, the case couldn't proceed because Mayo hadn't provided an address for Satan, so the US Marshalls service couldn't summon him to court. So there you go.
Interestingly, in 2008 there was another very well known case in which Nebraska State Senator Ernie Chambers sued God for allowing or enabling harmful activities, in an effort to highlight and satirise frivilous lawsuits. The lawsuit was thrown out because God could not be formally contacted without a postal address. To which Chambers argued that being omnipotent and omniscient, he didn't just know about the case, he was already in the room.
Anyway, Mayo's case is not the only time prisoners have tried to use God as a get out of jail free card. In 2005, a murdered serving 20 years in Romania known as Pavel M sued the Romanian Orthodox church in their role as Gods representatives on Earth for failing to keep him from the devil. He claimed that his baptism was a binding contract and that the God had been negligent in his duties towards him. The case was thrown out because God was judged as neither an individual or a company, and therefore had no ability to form contracts.
And finally, from suing God to patenting God. We're heading to 2011, and the odd case of Chris Roller, a former Us Navy nuclear engineer who may have spent too long near the plutonium, as he literally believes he's God, and went to court in the early 2000s to sue David Blaine, David Copperfield and a host of other stage magicians for using his divine powers without a licence. In fact, he has attempted and failed on a couple of occasions to patent divine and godly powers. His patent application stated: “Christopher Anthony Roller wants exclusive right to the ethical use and financial gain in the use of Godly powers on planet Earth.
In March 2005, he took David Copperfield to court, demanding $50 million in royalty payments for using Roller's powers for profit, with the stipulation that he would drop the case if Copperfield could show him how his tricks were done, specifically in line with the accepted laws of physics.
It should be noted, Roller's website says he's married to Celine Dion and was planning on running for president in 2008 with Bill Gates as his VP. So...
Bizarrely, the Minnesota court threw out the case. Even more bizarrely, they didn't ban Roller from suing other magicians despite his history of frivolous lawsuits, but they did add a stipulation that he couldn't specifically sue David Copperfield again. Oh well.
Tom's notes: A dark story from Australia with the cases of John Button and Darryl Beamish, two men wrongly imprisoned for murder.
· Last week’s topics could quite easily have been presented this week
o Your story was essentially a show trial
§ I almost went down this route this week
§ Plenty of them; 1989 trial of Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu (Chowshescu); Romanian Communist dictators
· I’d like to hear Sean Connery pronounce that name
o When researching witch trials in the later middle age I came across a difference in law between England and continental Europe that meant that witch trials were less prevalent
§ The presumption of innocence
§ Feudal law in much of what was the Western Roman Empire synthesised with Roman law but the concept of innocent until proven guilty; something introduced by the Emperor Antoninus Pius, was replaced by presumption of guilt which generally favoured aristocrats, and not little old ladies who behaved strangely and were labelled as witches.
· On the subject of innocent until proven guilty, what about if you are found guilty but later discovered to be innocent?
o Well that’s where I am going this week! Miscarriages of justice!
o Inspired by the very interesting Netflix documentary; Making a Murderer.
§ Creepy prosecution lawyer with the high pitched voice.
I’m going Western Australia!
A quick aside; the term Kangaroo Court, meaning a court that deliberately ignores established principles and procedures of law; thus losing credibility, obviously has Australian origins.
· Possibly came from the California gold rush of the mid 19th century when lots of Crocodile Dundees went to California to seek their fortune. Although the specifics of the etymology are debated.
This story might be quite well known to any Aussie listeners, but much less well known to everyone else.
Eric Edgar Cooke was a serial killer from Perth
· Now there’s an opening line from a children’s book
Eric murdered 8 people, let’s count them children, Bruce, Sheila, Crocodile, (actually Oliver and Olivia),
Eric attempted to murder 14 other people. 14 plus 8. Well, that’s 22. 22 victims. There were 22 victims of Eric’s crimes.
A bit about Eric
· Born in 1931
· Brought up with a violent farther who beat him and his mother
· Born with a hare lip and cleft palate; facial disfigurements that left him with a speech impediment and a slightly deformed face
o This was something that he was bullied about during this youth
· He was incredibly clumsy
o He had been hospitalised with head injuries on a number of occasions and could have suffered brain damage. He certainly had recurring headaches and episodes of passing out.
o Where’s a good place for a clumsy teenager to work? A blacksmith in the hammering section. Unsurprisingly he came out of this job with a number of hand injuries.
· Quite quickly he turned to petty crime
o Even at one point burning down a church because he wasn’t accepted on to the choir
§ If there’s one thing I love more than murder, it’s praising the lord through song. Hallelujah!
§ Did you have to sing hymns at school Sam? Did everyone sing the rude versions of the songs?
· Dance, then, wherever you may be, I am the Lord of the dance, said he, And I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be, And I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he.
In January 1963 Eric went on a murder spree killing 3 random people. There was no pattern to these murders; they were totally random. In August that year another person was killed but this time Eric was captured trying to retrieve the weapon he had used. The police then connected him with 2 earlier murders; one in 1963 and another in 1959.
· Eric was tried for murder and hung from the gallows on 24th October 1964.
· 10 minutes before his execution (he is the last person to have been hung by the state of Western Australia) he admitted to killing Jillian Macpherson Brewer (1959) and Rosemary Anderson (1963).
o However, 2 other men had already been convicted of the murders of these women and were in jail.
o Let’s discuss them…
Darryl Beamish was found guilty of murdering Jillian Macpherson Brewer in 1961. He was sentenced to death by hanging but this was later commuted to life. He served 15 years before release.
· Jillian Macpherson Brewer was murdered in her flat by an intruder who killed and mutilated her with a tomahawk and dressmaking scissors.
· 18 year old Beamish gave 4 confessions which he later claimed were obtained through intimidation and threats.
o Incidentally, just to make this story even sadder, Beamish was disabled; he was a deaf mute.
· His sentence was appealed 5 times and rejected each time
John Button was found guilty of manslaughter of his girlfriend Rosemary Anderson in 1963. He was beaten by police and coerced into signing a confession.
· He was given 10 years hard labour; he served 5
· “My mind was the real prison and tortured me every night, and was made even worse by the fact that I was innocent of Rosemary’s death”
· The main piece of evidence in the trial was Button’s car that had supposedly been used to kill Anderson. His car was damaged in such a way that seemed to fit with the fatal injuries received by his girlfriend.
In 2002 Button’s conviction was overturned when a number of journalists who had been supporting Button for a number of years managed to present new forensic evidence. They replicated the fatal crash with a crash dummy and established that the damage to Button’s car wasn’t strong evidence. It was also shown that our Eric’s car was damaged in a way that would suggest an impact with a human.
This quashed conviction then led the way for Beamish’s conviction being overturned in 2005.
It was established that both women were probably murdered by Eric Edgar Cooke.
Perth lawyers Tom Percy QC and Jonathan Davies worked pro bono on the appeals for 7 years and have since received awards for their efforts. Top blokes.