Neighbors believed Mercy Carrion was practiving ritual animal sacrifice in her home for months.
When animal control officers executed a search warrant at her home on April 26, Carrion greeted authorities in a blood-stained shirt — blood was smeared about the doorway, and items Loudoun County Animal Control officer Patrick Breslin described as “animal torturing devices” were recovered. Police also found several rooster corpses strewn throughout the property. The Sterling, Virginia woman was charged with three misdemeanor counts of cruelty to animals.
Carrion is a certified priestess of Santeria, an Afro-Caribbean religion originating with West African slaves and creoles which synthesizes African paganism, Catholicism and indigenous American traditions. Divination and animal sacrifice are at the center of the faith’s liturgical life. Carrion told officers that the animal sacrifices, which may have occurred as often as 12 to 15 times per week, were an essential aspect of her religious practice.
“I tried to explain, you offered the bodies of the animals to the saints,” Carrion told a Virginia district court this week. “There are elders in my church, and I was instructed to do this.”
Santeria animal sacrifice is a constitutionally protected practice. The Supreme Court had occasion to evaluate the issue in Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah, after the Florida city passed an ordinance banning the killing of animals in public or private rituals. The law’s challengers argued the ordinance was a naked attempt to suppress the practice of Santeria, in violation of the First Amendment’s free exercise clause. The Court agreed, striking down the ordinance.
Virginia authorities did not focus their case on the sacrifices themselves. Rather, state prosecutors argued that Carrion had treated the animals inhumanely prior to the sacrifice. Three rooster corpses were found in feces and urine soaked beer boxes in her home, and a veterinarian who testified at trial explained that the dead birds were withered and emaciated at the time of their death.
Carrion was convicted of all counts, and sentenced to a suspended jail term. She was also ordered to take classes in humane sacrifice methods offered by the National African Religious Conference.