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Guilt without knowledge

Discussion in 'General Writing Discussion' started by reiver33, Mar 6, 2012.


    reiver33 Only Forward

    Jul 14, 2008
    In most legal systems the accused may escape prosecution due to mental incapacity, be this low IQ, an inability to tell right from wrong, or even being in a coma. Would justice be served if an otherwise healthy accused had no memory of the crimes he has, in fact, committed?

    I have a WIP story in which the MC is an empath who becomes the prime suspect in a string of psychosomatic murders. He begins to suspect he is actually the killer, although he has no memory of committing these crimes.

    The plot uses the idea of self-induced schizophrenia (or, more properly ‘multiple personality disorder’) as a way for the psyche to cope with severe trauma. In this case the MC is killing whilst in the throes of a psychotic break, with the original personality recoiling in horror from the realisation of what he has done. What takes over is a virtually identical version of himself, but one that lacks knowledge of critical events. These are not repressed memories, they are memories that, in a very real sense, belong to someone else.

    In the above situation would the old adage ‘ignorance is no defense’ condemn an individual for acts his body has committed?

    Warren_Paul Banishment this world!

    Jan 28, 2012
    If the character isn't diagnosed as mentally unfit then I'd expect he would face the charges. But wouldn't he be diagnosed with schizophrenia in this case?

    If they don't realise something is wrong with him then yes, ignorance is not an excuse will likely apply.
    Peter Graham

    Peter Graham Well-Known Member

    Apr 10, 2007
    Not entirely. Some criminal offences are "absolute liability" offences, which means the knowledge or mental state of the accused is irrelevant. If you drive your own car without insurance, you are guilty even if you can prove you genuinely believed you had insurance.

    Mental capacity can amount to a defence - or a partial defence - in certain circumstances, but it's rarely a "get out of jail free" card. If someone is so batsh*t crazy that they are unfit to plead, they can normally expect a one way trip to a nice, secure hospital.

    Yes. If your MC has a disorder which means he kills people but then has no recollection of it, the law would view the killing people as the most important bit. Your chap would be charged with murder, but might be able to raise the defence of dimished responsibility. If that defence succeeds, the result is to convert a murder charge to a manslaughter charge - and not to convert a murder charge to an acquittal. Manslaughter stills carries very hefty sentences and manslaughter committed by folk who have successfully argued diminished responsibility tends to result in a one way ticket to Broadmoor.



    The Judge

    The Judge Truth. Order. Moderation. Staff Member

    Nov 10, 2008
    nearly the New Forest
    If they discovered his mental disorder, then yes, he would likely be deemed not guilty by reason of insanity, or whatever the equivalent is in the story. That doesn't mean he would escape scot-free of course, since he would be incarcerated as a mental patient eg somewhere like Broadmoor. As to interests of justice, there are two different aspects to consider. The first is the injustice to this personality who has not done the killings; the second is to the wider world who must be protected from the personality which kills and which inhabits the same body. In the view of most societies, the latter is going to win out.

    NB psychosomatic killings? Or psychopathic?

    EDIT: Peter sneaked in before me -- and makes more sense on the murder/manslaughter bit than me.

    Vertigo Mad Mountain Man

    Jun 29, 2010
    Scottish Highlands
    If you are interested in how to handle this in a story then you could do worse than take a look at Neal Asher's The Skinner in which one part of the storyline deals specifically with this issue, where the crimes are more in the nature of horrific crimes against humanity, but the perpetrator has no memory of it (and has suffered terribly). However the "justice system" that judges him in this case is a very informal one.
    David Evil Overlord

    David Evil Overlord Censored Member

    Jan 25, 2012
    Prime Evil Soup
    I read a story in Analog many years ago.

    The first person protagonist had killed his wife and his best friend after he caught them in bed together. Then he killed himself. The law made medical science bring him back and keep him alive so he could be tried for murder and executed. His death meant he didn't remember the moments just before he killed himself. So the law demanded he be told in graphic detail just what his crimes were.

    Then, when he knew what he'd done (but still didn't remember doing it), he was executed.

    Then he was brought back to life again. He had successfully argued that a man with no memory of his crime shouldn't be punished. Or, at least, he shouldn't be permanently executed.
    Last edited: Mar 6, 2012

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