Why the Criminal Process Fails

The Mill Valley Record/April 3, 1985
By Margaret Azvedo

Richard Ofshe, professor of sociology at UC Berkeley and a student of cults and thought reform, is not surprised the Beverly O'Mahony suit against the Johannine Daist communion seeks redress through civil rather than criminal action.

That is not unusual where cults or religious sects are involved, he says, and makes the startling observation that "the criminal justice system doesn't work in these cases."

It is not for want of will within the prosecuting agencies, it's for want of a way. "They just don't have the resources," he explains. "It's a budgetary problem...If someone commits a crime of violence such as robbery, that's relatively simple. But when there's any kind of complex situation -- a conspiracy, say -- the system's investigatory resources aren't up to it."

Ofshe offers a striking illustration. Members of a cult called Christ Miracle Healing Center and Church migrated from Chicago to a place called Miracle Valley in Cochise County, Arizona. One of a large number of bombs, being armed in their van (to blow up a sheriff's substation, it was revealed) exploded, killing one of their members.

Those involved were arrested and indicted, but they were indigents and the county was obliged to pay for their defense. The defense money ran out and the charges were dropped.

About a year later a shootout took place between sheriff's deputies and the Healing Center in which two cult members were killed. The Center sued the county for wrongful death. The county's insurance company paid for the defense.

Former members of the cult testified, and only then -- as a result of the civil suit -- were the facts concerning the cult's planned program of violence brought to light. Because so much time had gone by, it was thought futile to prosecute further.

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