Sunday, September 7, 2008
True Confessions: Court of Appeals Of Texas Finds Cleric-Penitent Privilege Doesn't Apply To Confessions In The Church Of Christ
A murder case in Houston has produced an interesting evidentiary ruling under Texas' clergy-penitent privilege. In Leach v. State, 2008 WL 4075797 (Tex.App.-Hous. 2008), Dan Randall Leach II confessed to the following facts in a statement to Sheriff's deputies:
Ashley Wilson and he dated in high school, but the relationship ended when she suffered head injuries in an accident. Later, the two reconnected, and Wilson became pregnant with Leach's child, but no one else knew about the relationship. Wilson was depressed and insecure about the future, and Leach convinced her to engage in "pseudo-therapy" with him, in which she would write down all the negative things in her life, after which he would show her all the good things. Leach also told Wilson not to include any mention of him. After Wilson wrote the note, Leach convinced Wilson to put a pillowcase over her head as part of a trust exercise. While Wilson's head was covered, Leach grabbed a three-foot long cord and strangled her to death. Leach then positioned her body on the bed to that it would appear that she had tied herself to the bed rails in an attempted or experimental suicide.
The plan worked as Sheriff's deputies believed that Wilson had committed suicide and closed the case. After seeing the film "The Passion of the Christ," however, Leach felt he had been "pricked by God" and needed to face the consequences of killing Wilson. Leach thus stood before the congregation at his church and stated that he was going on a long journey. When he returned home, he confessed to his parents. His father then called the church elders to the house, and Leach confessed to them as well.
After Leach was convicted of murder, he claimed that his statement to the Sheriff's deputies was improperly admitted because it was aken in violation to his right to counsel, but I want to focus on his other argument, which was that the church elders should not have been able to testify concerning his confession at trial. According to Leach, this confession was inadmissible under Texas' clergy-penitent privilege, Texas Rule of Evidence 505, which states that "[a] person has a privilege to refuse to disclose and to prevent another from disclosing a confidential communication by the person to a member of the clergy in the member's professional character as spiritual adviser."
Without even having to get into waiver issues, the Court of Appeals of Texas found that the privilege did not apply. Why? According to the court, a former elder of Leach's church, the Church of Christ, testified that the church does not have a doctrine that confessions will be kept confidential. Moreover, Leach's father testified that a member of the congregation can confess to an elder, and the elder will stand up and tell the congregation what he has confessed, and they will all pray together
Leach's father also indicated that no communication is private unless requested. And one of the elders of the church testified that Leach never told him that he wanted his communication to be kept private. Moreover, Leach's mother and father both testified that Leach never expressly indicated that he wanted his statements to the clergy to be kept private. Finally, Leach's mother also testified that Leach "knew when he told us what had happened that it was no longer going to be private once it got out."
All of this is fairly fascinating to me. I had assumed that all religious institutions had policies of keeping their penitents' "confessions" confidential, meaning that such confessions would normally be inadmissible under cleric-penitent privileges in the same way that confessions to attorneys are normally inadmissible under the attorney-client privilege and confessions to psychotherapists are normally inadmissible under the psychotherapist-patient privilege. Obviously, though, this is not the policy with the Church of Christ, and it might not be the policy with other religious institutions. In Evidence class, I like to say that the so called "professional privileges" are all very similar, but this seems to me to be a key difference.