Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Suing psychics for slander

Regular readers of Skeptophilia may recall that in June of last year, I wrote about an alleged psychic (at that time identified only by her nickname of "Angel") who had called the police in Liberty County, Texas, claiming that some folks living nearby had a mass grave on their property.  The police, instead of doing what I would have done (which is to hang up on her), went in to check the story out.

"Checking it out" turned out to be digging up the entire yard of the two who were accused, Joe Bankson and Gena Charlton.  After excavating their property with a backhoe, the police basically said, "Oh, all right, I guess there isn't a mass grave here after all," and left -- not, of course, repairing the damage.  By this time, the story had gotten out to the media, and Bankson and Charlton were subjected to taunts, scorn, and threats over their alleged role in the imaginary murders.

Well, Bankson and Charlton sued the county, several media outlets, and "Angel," and (although their suits against the county and the media were dismissed) just last week won an award from "Angel" -- whose real name is Presley Rhonda Gridley -- of nearly seven million dollars.

I don't know why the suits against the county and media were dismissed.  I can speculate that the reason may be that both the police, and the television stations and newspapers that covered the story, were "acting in good faith," pursuing a lead that seemed to have merit at the time.  I find this unfortunate, for two reasons.  First, there is a history of police turning to psychics to solve crimes -- most famously, in the case of Holly Bobo, a Tennessee woman who was abducted in 2011 and who is still missing.  I can say with some authority that there has never been a case where evidence gained through "psychic abilities" has turned out to be accurate or helpful.  It is reprehensible that the state of Texas is not holding the police department responsible for damaging two law-abiding citizens' reputations by acting on a "lead" that was obviously bogus.

Second, I doubt that Bankson and Charlton will ever see much of their seven million dollar award.  Presley Gridley is no Sylvia Browne, with deep pockets and a large bank account.  While it must be validating finally to have their defamation claims supported in a court of law, it would be nice if they were able to come out with something to show for the ordeal they've been through.  The situation might be different if the suits against the county and the media had been upheld -- Bankson and Charlton would have undoubtedly been more successful at collecting at least part of the award from them.

Still, it's to be hoped that this sends a message, both to "psychics" and to anyone in the media or in law enforcement who is inclined to take their ridiculous pronouncements as fact.  If you want to rip off the public by claiming you can read palms or divine with Tarot cards, or simply (as Gridley did) say you're receiving information from god and the angels, go ahead.  But be careful what you say to your clients, especially when it includes accusations that could be construed as slander.

And for cryin' in the sink, police agencies, let's be clear on what the word "evidence" means.  From Webster's: "evidence (n.) -- The available body of facts or information indicating whether a belief or proposition is true or valid."  Note the word "facts" in there -- i.e., not the delusional ravings of someone who thinks (s)he's getting information from the spirit world.  Hope that clarifies things for you.

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