According to a report out of The State (SC), a South Carolina man charged with third-degree arson after burning his own home has been found not guilty by reason of insanity. The state Department of Mental Health recommended the verdict after finding that the man burned his house because he believed witches were in the home. Judge Ferrell Cothran complied with the Department’s recommendation, sentencing the man to no more than 120 days in a state mental health facility.
Before we chalk this story up as another case of offbeat South Carolina news, let’s pause. If one believes witches are inhabiting his home, who are we to say he wasn’t justified in burning it down? After all, fire is the best method of ridding oneself of a witch. If the man’s home was inhabited by vampires, he could have avoided any criminal conduct by installing an extra skylight or lacing the rooms with garlic. Given the man’s predicament, fire was perfectly acceptable. Why punish him for it?
We imagine this case would have been bigger legal news had there actually been witches inhabiting the man’s home. In addition to arson, the man would likely be facing multiple counts of homicide. Assuming the witches are of the supernatural, broom-flying variety and not practicing Wiccans, the Court would be faced with determining the rights of creatures formerly believed to be mythical. Should witches really be treated as humans in a court of law? Answering the question in the negative would certainly breed a witch-led civil rights movement worthy of an episode of “True Blood.” This would be the South Carolina news the nation has grown accustomed to seeing.
Unfortunately, this story is limited to questions of capacity and its role in the courtroom. We trust the Department of Mental Health and its determination that the man was suffering from some psychological illness at the time of the act. With the commonplace depiction of vampires and zombies on television, we find it unlikely the man would chose witches as the culprit if he was simply making it up. We understand the mens rea ramifications of an insanity finding and agree with the end result in the criminal context.