Guilty Unconscious: The case of Brian Thomas

I have written previously about how biological and psychological perspectives can change the public perception of accountability in criminal cases, but I recently came across an article for aeon, written by Steve Fleming, which adds another interesting dimension to this phenomenon.

To summarize it briefly, psychological explanations of crime tend to make the jury believe that an individual is accountable for their crime, whereas biological explanations, which approach behavior by looking at organ systems down to genes, seem to dissolve agency and accountability (it wasn’t them, it was their cells, which they don’t consciously control). This nugget of knowledge in the hands of the right attorney is powerful stuff.

Fleming contends that even though we may have limited control over our biology, any knowledge that we do have does make us accountable for our actions. If we know what impact certain drugs have on us and how it changes our behavior, then we might need to take preventive measures to minimize damage and harm to others and to ourselves. This is evident when we consume alcohol; we may not all be aware of the impact alcohol has on the GABA receptors in our cerebellum, but we are all aware of the resulting problems in motor control. As biological structures, we know it takes our bodies a while to return the body to homeostasis after alcohol consumption, and so in the mean time we don’t need to be climbing behind the wheel of a car.

Fleming approaches the problem by examining the case of Brian Thomas, a man who suffered from the very real problem of night terrors, also known as pavor nocturnus. Fleming had a history of particularly bad nightmares that no doubt had a very stressful impact on his body. One night was horrifyingly fateful for Thomas, as he awoke to find that he had strangled his wife. The jury, recognizing his history with the condition, ended up acquitting him of murder.

Thomas was tremendously aggrieved, and had no idea that his condition would cause him to strangle his wife to death while still sleeping. But had he known that pavor nocturnus could make an individual commit criminal acts in their sleep, then there is little question that he would have slept away from his wife at night and sought therapy and treatment. If Thomas had known about potential behavior under the influence of pavor nocturnus, not sought any help, and killed his wife, it is not hard to imagine the jury being less forgiving.

Copyright Jack Pemment, 2012


For more info:

Was it really me?

Neuroscience is changing the meaning of criminal guilt. That might make us more, not less, responsible for our actions – By Steve Fleming

Man who killed wife in bad dream is freed

Metro News

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