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‘Court TV’ Psychic Loses to Skeptic in Real Court

News & Comment

Gary Posner

Volume 31.4, July / August 2007

The epic legal wranglings between “psychic detective” Noreen Renier and skeptic John Merrell, which have spanned two decades in county, state, and federal courts from Orlando to Seattle, may have finally come to an end—though not with the results predicted by the psychic.

Renier, who has been featured in numerous episodes of Court TV’s pro-paranormal Psychic Detectives series, probably trails only Sylvia Browne as America’s—and perhaps even the world’s—best-known self-styled psychic sleuth. But even Browne is notorious for some well-publicized psychic stink bombs, so it’s understandable that Renier might have been clueless that she would get killed in court over the publication of A Mind for Murder, her 2005 memoir.

Renier’s book was promptly pulled when the publisher learned, from Merrell’s attorney, that Renier and Merrell had signed a settlement agreement in 1992 prohibiting either party from ever again publicly disparaging the other. Renier had won a $25,000 libel judgment against Merrell in 1986, which he unsuccessfully contested in two courts, and this settlement, which also included a $23,800 payment to Renier, was to have finally put their battles to bed. It shouldn’t take an attorney, much less a psychic, to recognize that A Mind for Murder’s two chapters devoted to Renier’s history with Merrell, in which she accuses him of lying in court and other misconduct, was a flagrant violation of that agreement. Merrell thus sued Renier in December 2005 for breach of contract.

As the case played out in U.S. District Court in Washington state, where Merrell now resides, a posting (subsequently removed) by Renier on her Web site placed the blame on her publisher for having “neglected to spot the problem that was to materialize in this latest lawsuit, although they were told to be very careful.” I’m no psychic (I don’t even play one on TV), but I sense that they might have spotted the problem had Renier spotted them a copy of her unambiguous, legally binding settlement agreement.

Equally clear was the settlement’s stipulation that, should someone breach the contract, thus precipitating a lawsuit, the prevailing party’s legal fees would be reimbursed by the breaching party. Yet again, Renier’s position strained credulity, with her attorney insisting that, because Merrell failed to claim any substantial monetary damages and his complaints against Renier’s publisher and coauthor had been dismissed, Merrell was not the prevailing party. This was in spite of the judge’s earlier pronouncement that “Ms. Renier breached the agreement.”

Judge James L. Robart’s final ruling, issued on April 5, 2007, reaffirmed that Renier was the breaching party, Merrell was the prevailing party, and that Renier was obligated to reimburse Merrell for his attorney’s fees and other legal costs in the amount of $39,558. All of Renier’s counterclaims were denied. Her book has not been rehabilitated, and her own legal fees are estimated to exceed $35,000.

On his own Web site, Merrell has floated two intriguing, though somewhat fanciful, ideas for Renier to ponder. The first has her coauthoring another book, this time with a skeptic like me or Joe Nickell, revealing “how international psychics have fooled the public and media.” The second has Merrell agreeing to donate $10,000 in Renier’s name to a children’s charity and erasing her $39,558 debt entirely, should she in a timely manner be able to “prove under a qualified and sanctioned test something as simple as her claims of human levitation, psychic sight through clothing, or her two-way communication with trees.” The former—if Renier is consciously aware, and agreeable to confessing, that she is no more “psychic” than the rest—could have best-seller potential. The latter, on the other hand, would require that Renier actually demonstrate psychic ability under properly controlled conditions, and, based upon my own personal history with her, my money says she wouldn’t dare make the attempt—not even for Randi’s $1,000,000 reward.

Gary Posner

Gary Posner, M.D., is founder of Tampa Bay Skeptics and a CSI scientific consultant. His website is gpposner.com.