Murder Testimony of "Don't Shoot" Parrot Is Valid, Says Science

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Bud, the 20-year-old African grey parrot, was not allowed to take the stand in the murder trial of Glenna Duram. On Wednesday, a Michigan jury deliberated for eight hours before convicting the 49-year-old woman of first-degree murder for the 2015 shooting death of her 46-year-old husband, Martin Duram. Ever since Martin’s death, Bud, whom the victim’s family believes witnessed the tragic event, regularly repeats the phrase, “Don’t fucking shoot!

Martin’s ex-wife, Christina Keller, now owns Bud, and she’s convinced that the bird’s strange outbursts stem from the confrontation that ended with Martin being shot five times.

Newaygo County Prosecutor Bob Springstead, however, did not permit Bud to take the stand, telling the Associated Press in June 2016 that “I highly doubt there is any precedent for that.”

Springstead is correct that there’s no precedent for a parrot taking the stand, but there has been a prior instance of a parrot’s testimony being considered that scientists considered seriously. A parrot’s ability to mimic what it has heard just a few times before is well documented, after all, even though the mechanisms by which it does so are not well understood.

Bud: parrot or recording device?

In 1993, Max, an African grey parrot in California, was the crux of a defendant’s case. Max had been crying, “Richard, no, no, no!” for some time after after his owner was murdered. The public defender for the defendant, whose name was Gary, not Richard, hoped to use the parrot to exonerate him.

“I was making the argument that it wasn’t hearsay, it was a recording device,” Santa Rosa attorney Charles Ogulnick told the Guardian.

The Guardian reports that Dr. Irene Pepperberg, an expert on the African grey, vouched for the parrot species’ accurate recall, especially if the words had been uttered in a stressful situation.

Researchers studying mimicry have suggested that animals like African grey parrots develop the ability because it is a way to display to others their ability to learn. As Michael Schindlinger, an assistant professor of biology at Lesley University, explained in Scientific American, the ability to mimic requires several key traits — the ability to hear, a good memory, and good muscle control — all of which are traits of interest to a potential mate.

In the wild, parrot mimicry is thought to be a way for them to bond with their flock, picking up sounds they hear from one another. In captivity, they’ve been shown to accurately lift sounds from their various social interactions, and they seem to be especially drawn to excitement and commotion. They do not, however, seem to be able to synthesize new speech patterns, suggesting that it’s safe to assume that Bud and Max only ever repeated verbatim what they had heard before.

Ultimately, Max’s testimony was not allowed, despite Pepperberg’s support (the defendant was found guilty). Bud, too, wasn’t allowed to take the stand, though it’s not likely that the accuracy of his mimicry skills was the ultimate deciding factor.

Springstead told the Detroit Free Press later in June 2016 that, “We are going to be looking at … if it’s information we need to prosecute this case.”

Ultimately, the decision not to use Bud seems to have been based as much on the fact that Springstead had built a solid case against Glenna as it was on uncertainty about Bud’s reliability — or bizarre concerns over the mechanics of swearing the bird in. Unclear on how a parrot would even be sworn in in a court of law, Springstead asked the Associated Press a legitimately difficult question: “To a parrot, are you raising a wing, a foot?”

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