What started as a late-night talk show joke topic — a New York woman originally from Liberia who was indicted for allegedly trying to smuggle steaks of monkey meat into America via John F. Kennedy International Airport — is shaping up into a potentially major religious freedom dispute.
The woman, who says she imported the monkey parts for religious ceremonies, has attracted pro bono legal assistance from a top law firm, Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy. And a professor of African religious traditions at Harvard Divinity School, Jacob Olupona, may testify on her behalf.
At a hearing earlier this month, Chief Judge Raymond Dearie of U.S. District Court in Brooklyn ruled that Mamie Manneh, 39, of Staten Island, has legal standing to argue that her religious beliefs should exempt her from criminal prosecution for smuggling the contraband bushmeat.
As depositions and testimony emerge during the run-up to trial, court papers provide a glimpse into a world of religious rites that lawyers in the case are struggling to find ways to explain to those who are unfamiliar with them.
"Frankly, I sort of analogize it more just in my own personal experience with certain foods that you might have at something like a seder ... you know, bitter herbs and that might have some reference to the Exodus or something along those lines," Jan Rostal, an attorney for Manneh, told the judge earlier this month, according to a transcript.
Judge Dearie responded to the reference to the Jewish Passover festive meal by saying, "It sounds like we're going to have an interesting hearing," according to the transcript.
Manneh, who is also known as Mamie Jefferson, was charged in January 2006 with smuggling 65 pieces of bushmeat into America from the West African nation of Guinea in violation of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Government agents seized "skulls, limbs and torsos" of primates, including green monkeys and hamadryas baboons, according to court papers. The meat had been smoked.
The U.S. Supreme Court may have bolstered Manneh's prospect of winning last year, when it ruled 8 to 0 in favor of exempting a small group in New Mexico from prosecution for using a hallucinogenic plant to make tea. The court in that case, Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao De Vegetal, found that practice by followers of a Brazilian religion was protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a 1993 law passed by Congress that protects groups who use illegal substances for religious purposes.
But bushmeat brings new issues into play, including conservation of protected species and public health threats that experts say can stem from eating primates. Diseases linked to primates include HIV, SARS, Ebola, Monkeypox, and Lassa Fever, the federal government says in its complaint in the case, signed by a special agent of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Philip Alegranti.
A professor of law at George Washington University who specializes in religious freedom issues, Ira Lupu, said that Manneh's case is "not total nonsense," considering the Supreme Court's decision last year.
But given the health risks of importing and eating bushmeat, Mr. Lupu said the government will have a very strong case.
"We've got very good reasons why we don't want people importing these animals or parts of these animals," Mr. Lupu said. "I don't think the government is going to have a difficult time."
Still, Manneh has managed to recruit some notable allies. Milbank, Tweed, Hadley and McCloy picked up the case in April, offering two lawyers to assist Ms. Rostal, who works out of the public federal defenders office.
Manneh's attorneys plan on calling the Harvard professor, Mr. Olupona, to testify to the religious significance of eating bushmeat, according to court papers.
The government will respond by calling experts in species conservation and epidemiology at a hearing on August 30.
Manneh took the stand for the first time this month, where she testified that she was baptized as a Christian, but that she eats the monkey meat at religious ceremonies like Easter "because monkey from the wildlife is a very smart animal," according to a court transcript. Her testimony suggests that she practices a hybridized religion that borrows both from Christian concepts and indigenous African religious beliefs.
Seventeen congregants of Manneh's church in Staten Island, the First Christian Church at 54 Thompson St., filed an affidavit in July testifying to the importance of bushmeat for their religious beliefs.
"This is something our forefathers did, it is something we learned as children, and it is a part of our treasured relationship with God as African Christians," the congregants wrote.
"We eat bushmeat for our souls," they said.
Manneh, who has 11 children, is currently serving a two-year sentence in state prison for an unrelated crime; she tried to run over a woman she thought was her husband's girlfriend with a car last year, according to an article in Newsday.
Manneh's lawyers have said that she suffers from schizoaffective disorder and chronic mental illness.
Manneh's religious fervor is evident in a handwritten letter she penned to Judge Dearie last month.
"My 6 (six) years old [child] told me she is waiting for a miracle to bring me home ... I hope that God uses people to create and manifest Miracles, So I pray that God would use you to work a miracle for my child," she wrote.
The case is being brought by the U.S. Attorney's office in Brooklyn. An assistant U.S. attorney, Jonathan Green, appeared at the hearing for the prosecution.