Belief can be a powerful thing. Sometimes, the law will, under certain circumstances, show deference to that belief, such as the individual who recently persuaded the Department of Motor Vehicles to allow him to have his driver’s license photo taken while wearing a spaghetti strainer on his head (he claimed to be a practicing “Pastafarian”).
On other occasions, the law will be less deferential, as in cases of so-called “honor killings” in the United States committed by persons claiming to be following the culture and customs of their homeland. As some cases illustrate, however, sometimes the tighter the hold that certain beliefs have on an individual, the sweatier his grip on reality seems to be.
For example, in South Carolina, a court recently found a man not guilty (by reason of insanity) of arson for burning down his own home. The man committed the act thinking that witches were in his home. Yes, witches—not the practicing Wiccan type but the flying around on broomsticks, “Wicked Witch of the West” variety. The judge agreed with mental health professionals, and sentenced the defendant to up to 120 days in a state mental health facility.
And in Iceland, a highway project was halted pending concerns over the construction’s impact on the environment and “elf habitats.” Yes, elves. Believe it or not, the Supreme Court of Iceland is expected to rule on a case brought by the “Friends of Lava,” a group that, among other things, advocates for elves, or “Huldufolk (Icelandic for “hidden folk”).
The group wants the Icelandic Road and Coastal Commission to abandon the road project because it would disturb the elf habitat, including an area that contains an “elf church.” As silly as it may sound, a 2007 survey by the University of Iceland found that 63 percent of the respondents felt it was at least possible that elves exist.
But before you laugh off the idea that lawyers (as opposed to their clients) could be swayed by silly beliefs, consider the following two lawyers—Michael Busby Jr. and Robert Allan Wright Jr. Mr. Busby is an attorney in Houston who practices bankruptcy and family law.
In December 2013, Busby paid a Houston fortune teller, Melena Thorn of the “Psychic Love Spell Center,” $30 for a tarot card reading, $500 for a “ritual to reunite husband and wife,” and $2,700 in cash in a box so it could be “cleansed.”
Busby alleges that the money was not “cleansed” or returned, and that he and others have been defrauded by the so-called psychic. He’s seeking at least $1 million in damages, as well as an injunction to keep Thorn and those connected with the “Psychic Love Spell Center” from engaging in “fortune telling” or “practicing or advertising Psychic abilities” in Texas.
Busby is also asserting claims for breach of contract and for violating Texas consumer protection law, the Deceptive Trade Practices Act. Busby says he has had tarot card readings in the past as he sought out “anything that helps give me an edge.” How will the case turn out? Without my crystal ball or Magic 8-Ball, I probably can’t say.
As for Robert Allan Wright, Jr., he is an Iowa lawyer who has been practicing for more than 30 years. Apparently, though, that’s not long enough for him to know better than to fall prey to an Internet scam promising a windfall of millions from Nigeria.
One of Wright’s clients would supposedly receive over $18 million from a long-lost relative in the African country, as long as $177,660 in “Nigerian inheritance taxes” and additional monies for an “anti-terrorism certificate” were paid.
Attorney Wright solicited more than $200,000 in loans from current and former clients promising a huge return on their investment, and he himself looked forward to a $1.8 million contingency fee.
Wright communicated with a variety of people he thought were lawyers, bankers and in one case, the president of Nigeria. He transferred all of the money he raised to the Nigerians. Yet—color me surprised— no money or “inheritance” was ever paid.
Not long thereafter, the clients and former clients from whom Wright had borrowed money brought disciplinary complaints against the lawyer. In December 2013, the Iowa Supreme Court suspended Wright’s license to practice law for at least one year.
Was it criminal stupidity? For the Iowa Supreme Court, it was a case of too much belief and not enough competence. The court observed that “Wright appears to have honestly believed—and continues to believe—that one day a trunk full of . . . one hundred dollar bills is going to appear upon his office doorstep.”
The court also said that Wright should have investigated further and been more competent in such efforts, since even “a cursory internet search” would have alerted the lawyer that the “dream of a Nigerian inheritance was probably based on a scam.”
Belief can indeed be powerful, but without some brainpower or good old-fashioned common sense to back it up, it can be useless. And if you don’t believe me, then perhaps you’d like to discuss some oceanfront property in Arizona that I have . . . .