Convicting Miss Cleo: Psychics, Fraud and the Law

(Reading about this case from South Africa has inspired me to write this post. However, since I do not have enough information to take a position on the guilt or innocence of that particular defendant, I will address only theoretical legal cases.)

What is fraud? If I pay a builder $50,000 to build a house for my family, and he gives me a house made of LEGOs instead, has he committed fraud? Most people would say yes.

If I pay a construction company $2,000 to install a concrete driveway for my home, and the company simply paints the dirt to look like concrete instead, has the company committed fraud? Again, most people would say yes.

But what if the service being offered is a psychic reading, or an exorcism, or a magical spell that will cause all busty women named Kate to fall head-over-heals in love with you?

Can a person who pays for such a service–upon concluding that he has been duped–sue or press criminal charges against the person offering the services? Can he claim fraud?

The problem lies in the difficulty of determining whether fraud has occurred or not. Of course, rational individuals will point out that anyone claiming to possess psychic abilities is a fraud and a liar, and that many self-proclaimed psychics profit by exploiting the bereaved and gullible.

But courts do not (or at least should not) deal in reasonable assumptions, but rather in cold heart facts. Whether a psychic truly did communicate with a person’s loved one from beyond the grave is a metaphysical question that cannot be objectively answered in a court of law.

Consider two entrepreneurial individuals: an exterminator who offers to rid houses of cockroaches and other infestations for $100, and a “psychic” who offers to rid houses of evil spirits for $100.

In order to convict the exterminator of fraud, one would have to prove that he a) did not perform the services as advertised, or b) performed services of a lesser value.

On the other hand, in order to convict the “psychic” of fraud, one would have to prove either a) that evil spirits exist and that the psychic failed to exorcise them, or b) that evil spirits do not exist.

Clearly, a legal regime that brings supernatural claims into court must then decide which supernatural claims are true (if any) and which are not.

Some people may agree with me thus far but argue that–should a psychic’s claim prove objectively false–the psychic can or should be held legally liable.

They could point to the recent example of “psychic” Sylvia Browne, whose prediction of missing girl Amanda Berry’s death proved embarrassingly inaccurate when Berry turned up alive this year. Sadly, Berry’s mother Louwana Miller died believing Browne’s claim that her daughter was dead.

Since Browne’s prediction appears to have been unsolicited (or at least offered free of charge), there was no fraud in the formal sense. But suppose Berry’s family had paid Browne to help them find her. Could the law hold Sylvia Browne liable for her error?

Or suppose I pay a psychic to tell me the winning numbers for Saturday’s Powerball drawing, but the numbers I receive are not the winning ones. Could I sue the psychic, or have her arrested for fraud?

The problem here would be determining whether the false information originated with the “psychic” herself. In the Powerball case, the psychic could claim that she was sensing only that the chosen numbers were winners–not necessarily that they were the next winners.

Similarly, in the Berry case, Sylvia Browne could claim that she was receiving mixed messages–that she was speaking of a different missing girl named Amanda, or that Amanda’s fate was unclear and that she (Browne) simply misspoke.

Regardless of how people feel about self-proclaimed psychics like Sylvia Browne (and I assure you my feelings for them are not the least bit favorable), holding them legally liable for their claims would require either proving or disproving the existence of psychic abilities and other supernatural phenomena.

Even though there is not a shred of evidence to suggest that psychic abilities are anything more than superstition–and there is a wealth of evidence suggesting otherwise–that evidence simply cannot satisfy the extremely high burden of proof that civil libertarians should demand be met in every criminal case.

In order to convict a “psychic” of fraud, the prosecutor would have to prove (beyond the shadow of a doubt) either the existence or non-existence of psychic abilities–a task that is simply outside the purview of any terrestrial legal body.*

*A note on burden of proof: In debates between “psychics” and skeptics, the burden of proof obviously lies on the person making the more extraordinary claim–the psychic. However, in legal cases, the burden of proof lies on the State (in criminal cases) or the plaintiff (in civil cases), never on the defendant. Outside of a courtroom setting, though, the onus always falls on the supernaturalist to convince the skeptic–not the other way around.
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