Today in 1981, the sentencing of Arne Cheyenne Johnson in a Danbury courtroom marked the end of one of the most bizarre court cases in Connecticut history. For the first and only time in U.S. history, a defendant on trial for murder argued that he could not be held responsible for his actions because he was possessed by demons when the crime took place.
The sordid tale began on February 16, 1981, when 19-year-old Arne Johnson got into an argument with his friend and landlord Alan Bono concerning Johnson’s girlfriend, 26-year-old Debbie Glatzel. The three had been drinking extensively, and when the argument became especially heated, Johnson pulled a knife on Bono and stabbed him five times in the abdomen at their Brookfield, Connecticut residence before running into the woods. (It was the first homicide in the rural town’s 193 years of existence.)
Bono later died from his wounds, and Johnson was arrested and charged with murdering him in a drunken rage. Johnson’s defense attorney, Martin Minella, articulated one of the strangest defenses in American legal history: Johnson was not guilty on account of demonic possession. Johnson had taken part in an exorcism performed on Debbie Glatzel’s younger brother the previous year, and according to eyewitnesses, during the event Johnson had “dared” the demons to enter his own body. The Bridgeport Diocese confirmed that they had sent clergy to investigate an “event” involving the younger brother at the Glatzel’s house, but refused to comment any further on the matter once formal charges were brought against Johnson. Minella claimed he had a mountain of evidence, including taped recordings and expert testimony by famous Connecticut demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren, which he planned to use during the trial to bolster his defense.
Even though the story predated the internet age, it still managed to go viral, with extensive coverage in national papers such as the New York Times and Washington Post as well as popular magazines like People. Reporters flocked to Danbury, where Johnson’s trial was to be held, packing the local hotels and threatening to overwhelm the modest courtroom. Their collective excitement, however, was quickly shot down by presiding Judge Robert Callahan, who flatly refused to admit any of Minella’s defense claims involving the supernatural. “I’m not going to allow the defense of demon possession, period,” he stated at the start of the trial. The Hartford Courant reported that “while he admitted he’s not sure whether demon possession is possible, Callahan said… he knows it’s not a legal defense and considers evidence of it irrelevant, unprovable and needlessly confusing to a jury.”
With the most sensational aspect of Johnson’s trial gone, national interest in the case plummeted. A jury found Johnson guilty of manslaughter, and he was sentenced on December 18, 1981 to the maximum 10 – 20 years in prison. He was released on good behavior after serving only four years. In 1983, NBC produced a made-for-tv movie based on the Johnson trial starring Kevin Bacon and Cloris Leachman, and titled “The Demon Murder Case.” Although Arne Johnson’s demonic possession defense was never entered into evidence, his case did provide proof positive that, in the courtroom, the devil is always in the details — today in Connecticut history.
Julie Stagis, “Killer’s Defense Was Demon Possession,” Hartford Courant
Dudley Clendinen, “Defendant in a Murder Puts the Devil On Trial,” New York Times
Lynn Darling, “By Demons Possessed,” Washington Post
Lynne Baranski, “In a Connecticut Murder Trial, Will (Demonic) Possession Prove Nine-Tenths of the Law?” People Magazine