Did Arne Johnson's 'Devil Made Me Do It' Defense Work?

By: John Donovan  | 

Arne Johnson
Arne Johnson stabbed a man to death in 1981. His legal defense was guilty by reason of demonic possession. Did the devil really make him do it? Ida Libby Dengrove/(CC BY 4.0)

In February 1981, in a classic New England town in southwestern Connecticut, 19-year-old Arne Johnson stood accused of murder. According to authorities, Johnson argued with, then killed, Alan Bono, the manager of a local dog kennel after a day of drinking. Johnson stabbed Bono at least four times in the chest and stomach. None of that was disputed.

In the greater American consciousness at that time, when murder rates were spiking across the U.S., another killing would normally have hardly registered — even in a quiet town like Brookfield, which is about 60 miles (96.5 kilometers) north of New York City. But in an audacious burst of legal inspiration, Johnson's lawyer shoved the case into global headlines with a novel defense that would beget thousands of frenzied media accounts, books, TV shows, movies and endless religious debate.

Johnson, his lawyer Martin Minnella argued, didn't kill 40-year-old Alan Bono that chilly day. The devil did.

"This was a mind-blowing defense on Marty's part," the sometimes-controversial Connecticut trial lawyer Norm Pattis says now, with not a small degree of awe and admiration. "But ... I don't know. If I'd have paid good money for the defense, and my lawyer got up and said, 'The devil made him do it,' I'd be thinking, 'That's not the only thing the devil did; he made me pay you good money, too. Give me my money back.'"

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Pinning it On the Devil

Minnella's defense wasn't conjured, as it were, out of smoky, sulphuric air. A whole legion of people claimed to know of a mysterious, evil presence in the area almost a year before Bono's murder. One of them was Johnson's girlfriend, Debbie Glatzel.

Central to this part of the story were two local paranormal investigators, Ed and Lorraine Warren. Months before Bono's killing, they had been contacted by Debbie Glatzel's mother, Judy, who claimed that her 12-year-old son, David, was possessed by demons. It was something, the Glatzels claimed, was straight out of "The Exorcist."

They told The Washington Post at the time that boy's face was contorted when "The Beast" — the name the family called the demon — overtook him; he screamed obscenities; chairs flew through the air; hands groped at family members through the floor. They began sleeping during the day to prepare for the long nights with David.

The family contacted the local diocese and the police. No priest was permitted to perform a formal exorcism because the bishop of Bridgeport would not authorize one. But the Warrens did oversee several lesser rites of exorcism on David to "expel" the demons. And during one ceremony, evidently, Johnson implored the devil to leave David alone and inhabit his body instead.

According to many involved, the Prince of Darkness took Johnson up on his offer, and soon after, Johnson killed Bono.

exorcism
A formal exorcism was never performed on young David Glatzel because the bishop of Bridgeport would not authorize one. Ed and Lorraine Warren, however, claimed to perform lesser rites of exorcism on David to expel the demons.
Public Domain

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Legal Strategy or PR Move?

The Warrens, who admitted before the trial that the case would be good for their business as "demonologists," knew they had something as soon as they heard of the initial possession. "I felt like a good fisherman when he knows there's something on the line," Ed Warren told The Washington Post in 1981.

Considering the reams of physical evidence against his client and the stiff sentence that he faced if found guilty, Minella may have determined that trying to finger Satan for the stabbing was worth any risk. "I could put the pope on, and he'd tell you that if a guy is demonically possessed, he is not responsible," Minnella told The Post.

And so, in November 1981, press from all over the world descended on Connecticut for the trial. Books were planned and eventually written ("The Devil in Connecticut"), and a 1983 TV movie was churned out ("The Demon Murder Case") starring Kevin Bacon as a possessed boy who commits murder and Andy Griffith as a demonologist.

Almost lost in these stories — then and since — was the fate of young Arne Cheyenne Johnson. He faced a jury trial in which his future hinged largely on his lawyer convincing the court, not only of the existence of the devil, but also that the devil worked through him to kill Alan Bono.

Over the years, more has been made of the supposed possession than of the trial, for a simple reason. Before the trial began, Judge Robert J. Callahan denied Minnella's attempt to use "demonic possession" as a defense. The judge also declined to let Minnella call any priests to the stand. And he carefully limited what "demonologist" Ed Warren could say in Johnson's defense.

Ultimately, the "devil made me do it" defense never even made it to court. Much of the assembled press left before a verdict was announced. The Hartford Courant reported that prosecutor Walter Flanagan claimed Johnson killed Bono because he made an offensive comment about Johnson's girlfriend Debbie. Nothing more.

After the defense rested, the jury deliberated about 17 hours over three days, the Courant reported, before finding Johnson guilty of manslaughter. Minnella said he would appeal.

Johnson was sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison. He served just over four. Minnella never filed for that appeal. In the years since, entire movie franchises have been launched around this story, including "The Conjuring" series, culminating with 2021's "The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It," starring Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as the Warrens.

Ed and Lorraine Warren
Ed and Lorraine Warren are seen here in March 1981 at the Danbury Superior Court just after a grand jury returned an indictment against Arne Johnson. The Warrens claimed to be "demonologists" and were certain Johnson was possessed.
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

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Dancing With the Devil Defense

Minnella still practices law in Connecticut and, as he told the Courant, is asked regularly about the Johnson murder case.

"If you believe in God, you've gotta believe in the devil," Minnella told the Courant in 2014, "and what I saw in Arne as a young guy has profoundly affected me the rest of my life. There's a lot of crazy people out there that have contacted me to represent them with the same idea, 'The devil made me do it.' But our case was based on fact, not fiction."

Pattis, a partner in a law firm in New Haven, remains always on the lookout for high-profile murder cases of his own to take to trial. He openly (if somewhat jokingly) admits to being "professionally jealous" of Minnella's attempt to use a defense so radical that it reverberates some four decades after the case was decided.

The "demonic possession" defense was quashed. The questions were not.

"Question: Is there a devil? Are there actually evil spirits? And does the devil and evil, or do the devil and evil spirits, possess people and overtake their will?" Pattis asks now. "A lot of people believe that. But I just can't imagine a judge ever permitting that to get to a jury.

"But having said that, you know, it's like a profound cultural challenge. The churches still remain open. People go. They pray to God and they fear the devil. Don't tell them they're fearing something that doesn't exist. So why shouldn't it be admissible?"

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