Neuroscience & The Courts
An article by Steve Fleming in Aeon raises the important legal and moral question on what is the boundary between being awake and being asleep—in other words, when are we responsible for our actions. The question is important in establishing culpability in committing a crime. Central to this argument is the famous case of a man, Brian Thomas of Wales, who strangled his wife while he was asleep:
Crimes committed by sleeping individuals are mercifully rare. Yet they provide striking examples of the unnerving potential of the human unconscious. In turn, they illuminate how an emerging science of consciousness is poised to have a deep impact upon concepts of responsibility that are central to today’s legal system.
After a short trial, the prosecution withdrew the case against Thomas. Expert witnesses agreed that he suffered from a sleep disorder known as pavor nocturnus, or night terrors, which affects around one per cent of adults and six per cent of children. His nightmares led him to do the unthinkable. We feel a natural sympathy towards Thomas, and jurors at his trial wept at his tragic situation. There is a clear sense in which this action was not the fault of an awake, thinking, sentient individual. But why do we feel this? What is it exactly that makes us think of Thomas not as a murderer but as an innocent man who has lost his wife in terrible circumstances?
Our sympathy can be understood with reference to laws that demarcate a separation between mind and body. A central tenet of the Western legal system is the concept of mens rea, or guilty mind. A necessary element to criminal responsibility is the guilty act — the actus reus. However, it is not enough simply to act: one must also be mentally responsible for acting in a particular way.
The common law allows for those who are unable to conform to its requirements due to mental illness: the defence of insanity. It also allows for ‘diminished capacity’ in situations where the individual is deemed unable to form the required intent, or mens rea. Those people are understood to have control of their actions, without intending the criminal outcome. In these cases, the defendant may be found guilty of a lesser crime than murder, such as manslaughter.That neuroscience can explain and elucidate how the mind works shows how important science has become for the legal system, in particular for mounting a defense. A fundamental tenet of our western legal system is that the person committing a crime need have a mental awareness and an intent to commit an illegal act. A person who is asleep has neither. As Fleming, the article's author, writes rather persuasively: "In the case of Brian Thomas, the court was persuaded that his sleep disorder amounted to ‘automatism’, a comprehensive defence that denies there was even a guilty act. Automatism is the ultimate negation of both mens rea and actus reus.
You can read the rest of the article at [Aeon]