What Do Soymilk and Nutella Have to Do With an Online Harassment Case?–Taylor v. Texas

By Eric Goldman

Taylor v. State, 2012 WL 955383 (Tex. App. Ct. March 22, 2012)

In service of you, the reader, I read a lot of cases to find the ones worth blogging. Inevitably, some of those cases are gross. Like this one.

“Sataya,” the stage name of Scheri Couch, provides online psychic services at $3 per minute. The opinion says she claims to be a direct descendant of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Her website now makes different dubious claims about her lineage.

The defendant, Christopher Mark Taylor, claims he wanted to test her psychic abilities before becoming a customer. To do so, Taylor sent her multiple chat messages through her website. First, Taylor sent her rude and abrupt chat messages. Then, Taylor sent some messages falsely claiming to be her hairdresser. In one, he (under the pretense of being her hairdresser) invited Couch to lunch; when she discovered the ruse after showing up at the venue, it frightened her. Taylor claimed that, as a psychic, she should have divined the ruse.

In addition to these online contacts, for reasons that still don’t make sense to me, Taylor mailed Couch a “used” condom and “soiled” panties, items that he doctored up using soymilk and Nutella. Presumably, a real psychic would have divined that the items were edible, not scatological. Nevertheless, I’ll never think about soymilk or Nutella the same after this. Eww.

Texas prosecuted Taylor for online harassment. The jury convicted him in 20 minutes. The judge sentenced him to 1 year confinement but suspended that and ordered community supervision. His appeal goes nowhere.

He tried to suppress the condom and panties evidence. He argued they were extraneous to the online harassment charge. The court disagrees, saying that the items can provide insight into his intent when he sent the chat messages. The court noted the risk that the evidence would prejudice the jury (it would certainly freak me out as a juror), but it nevertheless says the evidence meets the 403 relevance standards.

Defense counsel also probed Couch’s bona fides as a psychic, eliciting this concession from her: “I have not been tested by an authoritative body as to my psychic abilities.” Apparently this conflicted with a claim on her website that she had been “tested in the top six percent in ‘ESP perception or sensories.'” The trial judge refused to admit printouts of these contradictory claims from her website. The appeals court upholds the refusal, saying that Taylor admitted to all of the key facts supporting the online harassment claim, and therefore undermining Couch’s credibility on a collateral matter wouldn’t change the jury’s decision. The court says:

We cannot conceive how weakening Couch’s credibility about the contents of her website would have affected the jury’s implicit rejection of appellant’s defensive theories relating to his intent in sending the message.

It’s a little hard to draw big life lessons from a case like this, but I think picking a psychic is a bit like picking any other professional service provider. The relationship has to be grounded in trust; if you don’t trust your service provider, find a different one, because no performance “test” will cure any trust skepticism. And with respect to verifying a psychic’s powers in particular, if it turns out that they are telling the truth, it seems foolhardy to antagonize someone who can make “petitions to the universe”.