Stephen Morse (Law/Psych., UPenn) and Morris Hoffman (State trial judge, Denver, CO ) have an op-ed in today's New York Times. They comment on Clark v. Arizona (earlier post here) as well as the recent Yates retrial. Their central claim is that judgments of criminal responsibility are essentially moral rather than scientific determinations, and they challenge those who attempt to use new neuroscience evidence to enlarge the scope of our doctrines of mitigation and excuse (e.g., like the insanity defense). Here's an excerpt:
The rise of various materialistic and deterministic explanations of human behavior, including psychiatry, psychology, sociology and, more recently, neuroscience, has posed a particular challenge to the criminal law’s relatively simple central assumption that with few exceptions we act intentionally and can be held responsible. These schools of thought attribute people’s actions not to their own intentions, but rather to powerful and predictable forces over which they have no control. People aren’t responsible for their crimes: it’s their poverty, their addictions or, ultimately, their neurons.
Lawyers and policymakers brought these academic explanations into the courts and legislatures, many of which responded to the pressure by expanding the doctrines of mitigation and excuse. Predictably, however, the public tired of many of the broader uses of the defense, especially after John Hinckley Jr. was found not guilty for reason of insanity for the attempted murder of President Ronald Reagan and others. Congress responded by adopting a narrow insanity defense, and many states followed suit. Four states have abolished the insanity defense entirely.
Once we agree that there may be some small percentage of people whose moral cognition is seriously disordered, how can the law identify those people in a way that will not allow the materialism of science to expand the definitions of excusing conditions to include all criminals? That is, if paranoid schizophrenia can provide part of the basis to excuse some criminal acts, why not bipolar disorder, or being angry, or having a bad day, or just being a jerk? After all, a large number of factors over which we have no rational control cause each of us to be the way we are.
The short answer is that we should recognize that the criteria for responsibility — intentionality and moral capacity — are social and legal concepts, not scientific, medical or psychiatric ones. Neither behavioral science nor neuroscience has demonstrated that we are automatons who lack the capacity for rational moral evaluation, even though we sometimes don’t use it. Some people suffer from mental disorder and some do not; some people form intentions and some do not. Most people are responsible, but some are not.