Could a Parrot Take the Witness Stand?

In an episode of the old TV courtroom drama “Perry Mason,” the only eyewitness to a millionaire’s murder is his pet parrot. The bird (or is it an imposter?) found at the crime scene keeps repeating, “Helen, give me the gun — don’t shoot!” Plot twists ensue, and the parrot ends up testifying at the murder trial.

As far-fetched as this may seem (the episode was based on the novel “The Case of the Perjured Parrot” by “Perry Mason” creator Erle Stanley Gardner), at least three parrots in real life that witnessed murders have later made what seem to be incriminating vocalizations.

Most recently, an African gray parrot named Bud witnessed the May 2015 shootings of his owners, Martin and Glenna Duram. Martin did not survive. In the two weeks since the shootings, Bud has been mimicking his owners arguing, ending by screaming, “Don’t f-ing shoot!” Glenna, who’s a suspect, claims she has no memory of the shootings. Martin’s parents believe it was their son who screamed those words and want investigators to consider Bud’s vocalizations.

In 2014, Neelam Sharma of India was killed during a robbery inside her home that was witnessed by her pet parrot. When her husband later read aloud a list of the suspects, the parrot allegedly started squawking, “He’s the killer” when the husband read the name of the woman’s nephew, Ashutosh Goswami. Police arrested Goswami, who confessed to the murder.

In 1991, an African gray parrot named Max witnessed the murder of his owner, Jane Gill, in Santa Rosa, Calif. Afterward, Max would squawk, “Richard, no, no, no!” The suspect in the case was Gill’s business partner, Gary Joseph Rasp, who insisted he was innocent. Rasp’s attorney wanted to use Max’s vocalizations as evidence, but the judge refused. Rasp was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

Unlike most other birds and animals that have hardwired vocalizations, African gray parrots and some other birds learn to vocalize by hearing sounds and imitating them, according to Audubon. In the wild, parrots use these vocalizations to share information and blend in with their flock. As pets, parrots vocalize to fit in with humans.

Parrots are drawn to phrases associated with excitement and commotion, Dr. Timothy Wright, who studies parrot vocalization at New Mexico State University, told Audubon.

So, as in the “Perry Mason” episode, could the vocalizations of a murder-witnessing parrot really be used as evidence in a murder trial?

There’s really no way to prove just what the bird is mimicking, Michael Walsh, an attorney from Muskegon, Mich., told WOOD-TV.

“If there’s no reliable way of making that determination, you can’t rule out that the bird witnessed a homicide or that the bird witnessed something on TV,” Walsh said.

Martin Duram’s ex-wife, Christina Keller, who now has custody of Bud, told WOOD-TV that while the parrot could be vocalizing someone he heard on TV begging not to be shot, why is he mimicking his owner’s voice?

Parrots like Bud can’t be witnesses because they’re not people, said Matthew Liebman with the Animal Legal Defense Fund, and also because “in many states, you’d have to prove that a bird could tell right from wrong, and then take an oath about it.”

While he also doubts that parrots and other animals will ever be considered as witnesses, Steven Weiss, a lawyer who founded the Nonhuman Rights Project, a group that wants some “cognitively complex” animals to be recognized as persons rather than things, does believe their “unique point of view could be submitted as evidence in a case.”

Prosecutor Robert Springstead told WOOD-TV he will decide later this month whether to file charges in the death of Martin Duram – and he will not rely on the parrot as evidence. Duram’s parents and ex-wife are probably disappointed.

Bud “was there to see it all happen and heard it,” Keller told WOOD-TV. “It imprinted in his brain. He can’t let it go and that’s awful.”

Photo credit: Thinkstock

114 comments

Glennis W
Glennis W5 months ago

They are good talkers let them have their say Thank you for caring and sharing

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Glennis W
Glennis W5 months ago

Grat infotmation and advice Thank you for caring and sharing

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Glennis W
Glennis W5 months ago

Yes they should if they can talk and tell the truth Thank you for caring and sharing

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Glennis W
Glennis W5 months ago

Very interesting article Thank you for caring and sharing

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Sue H
Sue H5 months ago

Poor Bud. I hope that he has recovered from this trauma.

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Danuta W
Danuta W5 months ago

thank you for posting

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Clare O
Clare O5 months ago

very smart birds

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Clare O
Clare O5 months ago

interesting

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Clare O
Clare O5 months ago

th

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Camilla Vaga
Camilla Vaga5 months ago

yes

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