9 Jan 2008

Step-father says he was casting a spell that "had gone bad" when his stepdaughters, ages 8 and 10, died.

Sioux City Journal - January 9, 2008

By Molly Montag Journal staff reporter

Casting spells and the study and practice of witchcraft is nonviolent and often misunderstood, experts say.

Lawrence Douglas Harris Sr., 25, of Sioux City told investigators he was casting a spell that "had gone bad" when his stepdaughters, ages 8 and 10, died Sunday. He faces two counts of first-degree murder.

Professor Helen A. Berger, author of three books on witches, said she doubted anyone claiming to have killed children while casting a spell is a true practitioner of witchcraft or Wicca, a nature-based religion often associated with witchcraft and spell-casting.

It is unclear what belief system, if any, Harris was acting on when he allegedly killed the girls, Alysha and Kendra Suing.

One of the problems with witchcraft, Berger said, is there is no way to say who is a witch or follower of Wicca and who is acting on their own philosophies and beliefs.

Other religions, such as Catholicism, have a set of rules, standards and practices to measure against.

"This is not a group that participates normally in violence, but it is a group that doesn't have firm boundaries, which means that anyone can make a claim to be a member," said Berger, a sociology professor at West Chester University of Pennsylvania.

Members of mainstream religions may be suspicious of those claiming to cast spells, but Berger said it usually involves lighting candles and sending energy toward another person. It isn't physical, she said, involving at most a light touch on the shoulder.

"There's nothing in this that I can imagine resulting in a death," she said.

Kendra and Alysha's killings may be out of line with what experts consider modern witchcraft and pagan practices, but they are not the first children to die during a failed ritual.

In 2004 in Georgia, two people told authorities they had killed a 6-year-old girl during an exorcism gone wrong. Police said Christopher and Valerie Carey strangled, beat and stabbed the girl in an attempt to rid her of demons. Investigators found the girl, whose back had been broken, in a hotel room, covered with pages from a Bible.

Lisa Stenmark, a professor in San Jose State University's Comparative Religious Studies program, said most people proclaiming to be witches -- especially those who practice Wicca -- would not harm or sacrifice a human during a ritual.

Stenmark said she believed further investigation would show Harris' actions likely had nothing to do with witchcraft or Wicca. While both are shrouded in mystery, Stenmark said followers do not promote harming or sacrificing people.


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