Among AA Members
Jim Fitzgerald of The Associated Press reported on August 2, 2001 that
a legal precedent was set that protects confidential conversations among
members of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) when a federal judge voided a
manslaughter conviction . In white Plains, New York, a federal judge overturned a manslaughter conviction, saying conversations among Alcoholics Anonymous participants should not have been used as evidence because such exchanges are a form of confidential religious communication.
U.S. District Judge Charles Brieant said treating AA meetings with less protection than any other form of religious communication, which carries assurances of confidentiality, is unconstitutional.
The entire AA relationship, he wrote, ``is anonymous and confidential.''
Paul Cox, 33, had been convicted of two counts of manslaughter for stabbing to death Laksman Rao Chervu and his wife, Shanta, in their home in 1988. Cox claimed he was in an alcoholic stupor when he broke into the home, where he had lived as a child. He did not know the couple.
His trial featured testimony - some obtained by subpoena - from AA members who said Cox had discussed memories of the stabbings.
Cox was sentenced to a minimum of 16 years in prison. He appealed, claiming his statements to fellow AA members were confidential and should not have been admitted as evidence.
Brieant said a federal appeals court held in 1999 ``that AA is a religion.'' That conclusion, he said, was reached in a case that said a criminal defendant could not be ordered to attend AA meetings ``because of the religious nature of the 12 steps.'' The 12 steps are tasks AA participants are asked to complete as they fight alcoholism.
In his ruling Tuesday, Brieant said that, based on AA being considered a religion, disclosures of wrongs to fellow members should be protected by ``a privilege granted to other religions similarly situated.''
He also cited a state Court of Appeals finding that ``adherence to the AA fellowship entails engagement in religious activity and religious proselytization.''
Brieant stayed Cox's release to allow time for an appeal, which District Attorney Jeanine Pirro said she would pursue.
The prosecutor said the testimony was not privileged because ``there was no evidence whatsoever that Alcoholics Anonymous is a religious organization as required by statute, or that another member is a clergyman.''
Pirro also noted that the AA testimony did not concern what Cox said in meetings, but rather in conversations outside meetings - a point Brieant did not address.
Cox's attorney, Robert Isseks, said the ruling was ``a tremendous and strong statement of First Amendment principles.''
A spokesman at AA's general services office in New York, who insisted that his name not be used because he is a member, said Thursday that the organization would have no comment.