The Last Great American Witch Trial
Headlines read Witch On Trial ... the verdict would be Guilty! Zsuzsanna Emese Budapest was the first witch prosecuted since the infamous Salem witch trials.
On February 10, 1975, Z Budapest was arrested in Los Angeles, California for violation of municipal code 43.30, which basically said fortune telling is against the law. It's only exception was Code 43.31, which said it was okay if it was part of a recognized religion's practices.
Z and her defense team rented the Press Club on Crenshaw in Los Angeles and scheduled a Press Release. They made sure the press would be there by throwing them a headline bone ... First Witch Prosecuted Since Salem. Journalists are always hungry for sexy headlines sure to attract readers, and the authorities who were prosecuting Budapest would quickly find themselves in an embarrassing three-ringed circus of media frenzy as Z released her statement:
I am fighting for the religious freedom of all women. As long as there is a white male blue-eyed god in the heavens women bend their knees to, there will be a white male moral authority on Earth who will tell her what to do, and what to feel, and how to pray.
I am a witch, worshipping a free goddess who has no traffic with men. Diana, the goddess of the wild. The lesbian goddess. She who rules over women's mysteries. She who is oracular. She who is the soul of nature.
My coven is the Susan B. Anthony Coven Number One. We are a feminist religious group, consciously reclaiming the goddess religion for modern wimmin today. We have started incorporations and we think this arrest is a result of the authorities' ire against women trying to create their religious beliefs.
The feminists and the pagans came to picket outside the courthouse waving signs that read ... Witch trials are Women's trials! and I'm proud to be Pagan! It all made the six p.m. evening news.
At 9:15 a.m. on April 10th, 1975, the Honorable Judge Michael T. Sauer entered the courtroom. All rose. Z Budapest found herself staring into the face of a short, pudgy white man clothed in black robes that he had just adorned himself with. Having just come from church, like he did every morning as a good devout Christian, he wore his robes like a badge of courage as he faced the witch. Enemies of old, here they were again ... Pagan vs. Christian ... woman judged by man. He tried to hide his enthusiasm for the large crowd that had shown up for this witch trial.
Marguerite Buckley and Marie Colaneri were the dense counsel for Budapest. It was Buckley who made a motion, ad limine, for parts of the trial to be heard in judge's chambers so as to insure Budapest a fair trial being that there were also plenty of witch haters and lesbian haters in attendance who might influence a jury.
Judge Sauer did not know the letter of the law. He had no idea what the latin legal phrase ad limine meant, nor did he care to know. In fact, soon into the proceedings Judge Sauer let it be known that he didn't even have a copy of the law, municipal code 43.30, which Budapest was on trial for, nor did he care about the actual wording of the law.
So on the first day of the trial, the judge and the district attorney indulged themselves in the rewriting of the law to taylor it to the specific charges against the witch. By the time they were finished, it read less about fortune telling and more about the unfortunate future of the undercover woman police officer who had entrapped Budapest.
Now reworded, the trial minutes document the changes from mere fortune telling to include witch potions and the husband problems of the undercover police woman:
In the City of Los Angeles, willfully engage[d] in the business of and advertise in a newspaper the telling of fortunes, the restoration of friendship and affection of a husband and friends by means of cards and potions.
It was indeed a witch trial. And to make matters worse, by the time Budapest came to trial, the tarot reading she had given to the undercover police woman foretelling her future, had all come true. She was one hundred percent accurate, and that would prove to be the deciding factor in finding her guilty.
Marguerite Buckley began to argue the original intent of municipal code 43.30, which allowed that if a person engaged in the use of such divination tools as part of their religious practices, then it was not a violation of the code's section. The burden was on the defense to prove that Z Budapest was indeed using tarot as part of her religious practices, thus pronouncing to the world that she was a witch and the high priestess of an active coven.
The Entire reading of the tarot is her gift and part of her practice as a high priestess in the Sisterhood of the Wicca ... recognized as a high priestess since 1971. She formed a religious organization, and they have been practicing as a coven. It's a Susan B. Anthony Coven Number One since 1971.
Prior to this time she was using her gifts of divination and her description of what she does is counseling. And the cards are merely an instrument, ... which by the way, also have a history going back five thousand years. They are her means of counseling with people who have problems, and her use of the gifts which the goddess has given her. (Marguerite Buckley)
Outside the courtroom both sides picketed and shouted their slogans for the cameras. Women's music sweetheart, Chris Williamson came to support her friend and demonstrate her support as a feminist. The prospective jury members leaned over the second story railings taking it all in as they waited for the jury selection process to begin.
When Buckley voiced her concerns about a tainted jury, she was admonished by the judge for her part in Budapest's press conference the day before. He was of the opinion that Buckley and Budapest had brought this upon themselves, and he had no intention of ensuring an unbiased jury selection. Even though the prosecutor urged a mistrial or a change of venue, Judge Sauer was already enjoying his new found fame. He was not about to do either.
Then, within a few minutes time it was the prosecutor, Judith Stein, who voiced her concern that the pagan and feminist demonstrators were biasing the prospective jury. The judge, nor the prosecution never once asked questions concerning the anti-witch demonstrators. Instead, they seemed concerned that the pagans might be spellcasting as they fretted about whether there were voodoo dolls or talismans being used. They objected to the willow plants that the pagans wore. Was it fear that made Stein argue that the demonstrations should be stopped?
Buckley successfully argued First Amendment Rights and the fact that the demonstrators had approval from the Marshall. It was a peaceful, legal demonstration. No witches were wielding their magical wiles over them. It was obvious that the judge and the prosecution, and soon the jury, were actually more influenced by their own fears about witchcraft. It could never be a fair trial.
On the second day of the trial, Stein raised the issue of whether or not Wicca was a bona fide religion. This added yet another layer to an already complex trial, as it meant that on trial were the issues of witchcraft, feminism, lesbianism and the goddess. It had almost nothing to do with divination laws, but the impact of this trial's outcome would reverberate through all four of those communities and change history.
The first witness called was Rosalie Kimberlin, the veteran undercover bunco police officer who received the tarot reading from Budapest. Out came a chart presented by the prosecutor showing the tarot card's spread, to which Z quietly pointed out to her attorney was incorrectly showing the real positions of the cards as she read them. Buckley objected, but was dismissed by the judge.
The witch's cards ... they're like the infamous dead man's hand from Tombstone, Arizona, except these were tarot cards. Cards that would be recorded into history, in this case as the hand that would find this witch guilty. Budapest had fatefully given the undercover officer a one hundred percent accurate and detailed reading, which would give fuel to the prosecution's case.
Laid out in the Celtic Cross spread, Budapest pulled the Fool, Knight of Pentacles, 6 of Pentacles, 3 of Wands, 2 of Wands, 4 of Cups, 10 of Swords, 7 of Pentacles, 3 of Cups, Knight of Wands, Page of Pentacles and 6 of Cups.
This reading was then followed by having the woman officer pull eight more cards, and the first card drawn was Death.
What it all boiled down to was that Budapest had told the woman that her mother would move to Florida. That she would not go with her, but her daughter would and that daughter would not get into Veterinarian school right away. She told the officer that she would divorce her husband and that he would slander her. It all came to pass.
The next witness was Officer Laurence Shelley, a five year veteran of the LAPD. Shelley was the arresting officer, and a liar. He was the worst kind of cop who had no problem tainting evidence to meet his own needs. He would also lie under oath.
If it weren't for his lies, his testimony would have been pedestrian. Nothing more than describing the content's of Budapest's store and showing photos he'd taken of the store. But Shelley did lie ... twice in fact, and both times it was cause for much discussion.
The first lie was about what the sign said in Budapest's store with regards to her tarot readings. Shelley testified that the sign read, tarot card readings, $10.00 a half hour. What the sign actually read was ... Tarot readings, donation $10, but taking donations and charging for the readings were two different things in the eyes of the law. So, Shelley changed the facts to make his charge stick. Oddly enough, his photo of the sign never made it to court. Funny thing was, that Budapest was known for taking donations, exchanges, gifts and even kisses for her readings. She never charged for them.
The second lie that Shelley would indulge himself with turned out to be fateful. Under oath Shelley testified that when he told Budapest she was being arrested for violation of LAMC 43.30 fortune telling, she responded ... I'm glad you are arresting me. You'll make me famous and rich ... and that he never tried to handcuff her, that he didn't even have cuffs with him. So, he had sat her in the front of the store, near the door, unattended while he and the other officers gathered evidence.
Amazing that the witch didn't flee!
Truth is that Budapest never uttered those sentences, but the fates did bring an air of truth to Shelley's words. Budapest would become an American legend, in part, because of this arrest.
Shelley and the other officers (Carl Falkenborg and Jose Alcantara) never wanted the world to know what really happened that day in Budapest's Feminist Wicca store. That the handcuffs were coming out as they pronounced the charge against her, and Budapest responded by leveling a curse at them ... four months' worth of nightmares to the first man who touches me!
It was fear of her that caused those officers to put back their cuffs and embellish their story to keep their secret. Lying in court seemed a better alternative than going insane from non-stop nightmares. They never touched her, not even during fingerprinting.
As they were leaving the store with Budapest, she yelled back to Helen Hencken, her employee and friend ... Call me a lawyer and prepare a press release! Officer Shelley never spoke with the lawyer as he testified that he did.
Also, none of those arresting officers ever read Budapest her Miranda Rights. Had Budapest wanted to merely have her case thrown out of court, this would have been the vehicle to do it. Budapest wanted more. She had told Buckley from the onset that she wanted the law completely struck down, which meant that she had to loose this trial in order to appeal it all the way to the state's Supreme Court.
Budapest and her legal counsel set out to establish Wicca, and more specifically Dianic Wicca, as a bona fide religion. They brought in testimonials by ULCA anthropology professor Barbara Chesser and Alison Harlow, who was herself an established High Priestess in the Wicca religion. Wicca would find it's first legal foothold when the state's Supreme Court repealed the guilty verdict as unconstitutional and in violation of the Freedom of Religion Act.
Written by Bobbie Grennier with facts verified by Z Budapest. ©2008