A man's confession to fellow Alcoholics Anonymous members to two killings was constitutionally protected and shouldn't have been used against him, a federal judge in New York ruled in overturning a 1995 manslaughter verdict.
The judge ruled, as had previous New York appellate decisions, that Alcoholics Anonymous — a self-described "spiritual" fellowship dedicated to helping members stop drinking and recover from alcoholism — engages in constitutionally protected religious activity.
The man, 33-year-old Paul Cox, was sentenced to a minimum of 16 years in prison for the killings of two people in their home in 1988. Cox's arrest and conviction resulted from his confessions to fellow Alcoholics Anonymous members, according to Tuesday's ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Charles Brieant.
Such confessions are an important of AA's famous "12 Step" program for recovery, which AA says has helped more than 2 million people stop drinking.
The group encourages confessions and identities of members to remain anonymous, so as not to discourage others from joining and following the program.
AA Ruled Religious
Brieant's judgment hinged on his finding that Alcoholics Anonymous members engage in religious activity as part of the program.
"The record before this Court shows that in addition to the numerous religious references in the Twelve Steps, meetings of AA are closed with a recitation of The Lord's Prayer," he wrote.
Brieant also cites as precedent, an earlier Court of Appeals ruling that AA "is a religion," and so courts couldn't compel persons to attend the meetings.
"He's bound by that other case," said Father Robert Drinan, a Georgetown University Law School professor.
Brieant said in his ruling that while AA may not traditionally be called a religion, the group engages in religious communications that should be protected by the First Amendment.
The First Amendment reads: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech …."
"Clearly it is possible as a matter of Constitutional law to have and to practice a religion without having a clergyman as such," Brieant wrote. "[I]f the state is treating AA meetings with less protection than any other form of religious communication which carries assurances of confidentiality, a Constitutional violation exists."
Not a Religion
Lawyers representing New York state argued the contrary: "There was no evidence whatsoever that Alcoholics Anonymous is a religious organization as required by statute, or that another member is a clergyman or other member of any religion or duly accredited Christian Science practitioner."
Brieant "is creating by judicial fiat an additional privilege that is outside of the scope of the state Legislature," said David Hebert, the executive assistant district attorney for Westchester County, where the case was prosecuted.
Hebert contends AA confessions should not be considered confidential because AA says it is not a religion and is a nonprofessional organization, whose members are not, like doctors, lawyers or priests, trained to hear confessions or other privileged information.
Further, he says Cox's confessions were made outside of AA meetings.