The American criminal justice system recognizes “insanity” as a legal term of art. In its most familiar context, a defense of “not guilty by reason of insanity” implies the perpetrator of a crime was incapable of formulating the intent to commit the crime. As explained by the Legal Information Institute of Cornell Law School, the principle underlying this defense “is that the behavior of a defendant who is not acting as a free moral agent is not worthy of social condemnation through the institution of punishment.”
As reported by Neil Vigdor, writing for The New York Times, the pro-Trump internet cult known as QAnon appears likely to spawn an entirely new subset of legal scholarship regarding the insanity defense.
A California surfing instructor confessed to killing his two children with a spearfishing gun after abducting them, telling investigators that his belief in the conspiracy theories known as QAnon made him do it, the authorities said on Wednesday.
Matthew Taylor Coleman, the 40-year-old founder of Lovewater, a surfing school in Santa Barbara, California, allegedly abducted his 2-year-old son and 10-month-old daughter and transported them to Rosarito, Mexico, where he murdered them. According to the nine-page FBI affidavit, QAnon had convinced him that this was the only course of action he could take in order to save the world.
“M. Coleman stated that he believed his children were going to grow into monsters so he had to kill them,” the special agent, Jennifer Bannon, wrote. “M. Coleman explained that he was enlightened by QAnon and Illuminati conspiracy theories and was receiving visions and signs revealing that his wife, A.C., possessed serpent DNA and had passed it on to his children.”
The murder was particularly brutal. Based on Taylor’s own account, his son was still alive after Taylor shot him through with the spearfishing gun. So he grabbed the spear by its hilt and wiggled it into his son further, ensuring that the child would die.
The bodies of Mr. Coleman’s two children — identified in court records only by their initials: The girl was R.C. and the boy was K.C. — were found in a ditch by Mexican authorities, and they had large puncture wounds to their chest cavities, the F.B.I. said. In the affidavit, investigators wrote that Mr. Coleman told them that he had discarded the spearfishing gun in a creek and his bloody clothes in a trash bin at the side of a road in Tijuana.
According to prosecutors, the two children (pictured in this ABC7 report with their mother and father) had been stabbed a total of 29 times.
Coleman’s wife reported her husband and children missing to the Santa Barbara police department, and Coleman was ultimately tracked to Rosarito through the “Find my Phone” app. According to Vigdor’s report, he was apprehended when he attempted to cross back into the United States. According to the FBI affidavit, “Mr. Coleman told the authorities that he knew what he did was wrong, but that it was the only course of action that would save the world.”
The key takeaway from this, for purposes of prosecution, is that Coleman was aware that killing his children was a crime. That fact alone would generally negate any attempt to avoid a murder charge by pleading insanity, and by admitting this, Coleman most likely sealed his fate.
Beyond the horrific nature of this particular crime, however, there are some disturbing questions implicated by the vast reach of the QAnon cult in general. As reported earlier this year by The New York Times’ Kevin Roose, this is no longer a “fringe” cult but one that now counts millions of Americans as believers. As of last December, for example, an Ipsos poll found that 17% of Americans believed QAnon’s central tenet: that “a group of Satan-worshiping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics and media.”
And that 17% of the American population translates into 55 million Americans who ostensibly sign on to this absurdity. As Roose's report discusses, the cult now encompasses not only rabid Trump supporters but other, more diverse demographics as well:
The earliest adherents were mainly far-right Trump supporters, but in 2020, the movement expanded its reach to include health-conscious yoga moms, anti-lockdown libertarians and evangelical Christians. Unlike the stereotypes of extremist movements, QAnon doesn’t appear to be primarily dominated by young men, or people experiencing economic pain. There are Harvard graduates and Wall Street executives who believe in it, as well as people with less elite pedigrees.
It has also infested our government in the persona of Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, QAnon’s most visible proponent in Congress, who continues to spread QAnon conspiracy theories in her capacity as an elected official. As Roose’s report notes, other elected Republicans at the state level have also embraced QAnon conspiracy theories.
As noted above, the insanity defense exists so we as a society do not punish the undeserving who cannot be held responsible for their actions. Matthew Taylor Coleman (apparently) knew that viciously murdering his small children was an improper thing to do, even if he justified it using his belief in QAnon conspiracy theories.
What happens, though, when a murderer does not acknowledge the wrongness or even the criminality of his or her act, shows no remorse or regret for his or her actions, makes no attempt to hide them or cover them up, but simply believes he or she is performing a useful societal function by killing others at the behest of QAnon? What if QAnon teaches him or her that genocide and extermination of nonbelievers is to be regarded as a mere ministerial function, a routine way of cleansing society of elements the cult considers sub-human or undesirable, as morally neutral an act as taking out the trash, or cutting the grass?
Would that be insanity? Most of us (thankfully) would agree that it is, at least in the colloquial definition of the word. But what if the legal system is asked to accept it as “insanity” as well? How will a judge react to this type of defense?
In a nation where as many as 55 million supposed QAnon adherents eagerly lap up this madness, it’s likely that we’re going to find out.