“She appeared to be in some kind of trance”: Anthropology and the question of unknowability in a criminal trial

Joost Fontein


This is a personal account of a recent criminal trial in the United Kingdom that the author was involved in as an expert witness, involving a young Zimbabwean woman who attacked her mother with a knife, when she (as she, her mother, and relatives claimed) was possessed by an evil spirit as the result of another family member’s witchcraft. Evidence for her abnormal state of consciousness was corroborated by police evidence that described her as “in a trance” on the night in question, and despite a wide range of medical and psychiatric assessments, no clear neurological, medical, psychiatric, or sleep-disorder causes for her “possession” were ever established. The article describes the difficulties encountered in producing anthropological evidence for the criminal court that sought to go beyond the limitations of conventional forms of “cultural defense” to argue for the limits of knowledge and the “possibility of other possibilities.” With a nod to Harry West’s notion of “ethnographic sorcery,” this unusual court case illustrates how anthropological expert evidence can be constrained by courts constructing their own kinds of certainty, and yet still have efficacy in unintended ways.


witchcraft, possession, courts, cultural defense, uncertainty, anthropology and the law

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.14318/hau4.1.003