Punishing Brains, We Know Not What We Are.

Before the criminal justice system can begin to curtail punishing the symptomatic behaviors of severe mental illness to the extent that it needs to, we must come to terms with what we are as human beings.   As it stands now, many of us hold near absolutist notions of what makes us good or evil beings and these notions have their roots in our ancient or historical belief systems.  Freudianism and its kindred theories continue to have a stronghold on our minds, equipping every lay person with diagnostic narratives that can be applied to any sort of disordered act or expression of mental disturbance.  Citing commentary from distinguished medical doctor, Jeffrey Lieberman in a guest blog of Scientific American, “Freudian theory turned out to be a brilliant fiction about personality and behavior”.

As the tech savvy among us may know, in the casual lexicon (vs. the purist computer science definition) of computer programming, the terminology transparency refers to the invisibility of the “mind” of the machine to the end-user.  The advent of the computer and advanced communication technologies may serve as a model (paradoxically) for reflection upon the functionality of the human mind.  We are end users of our own human bodies, engineered for autonomic thought generation…the stream of consciousness, self-auditing and control, volition, reflection, self-awareness.  Transparency in the end-user experience of human consciousness is not the reality for the individual afflicted by severe mental illness.  Affliction causes great human suffering and devastation, but it also creates the opportunity to gain insights that may challenge our belief systems.  Unfortunately, even when there is extraordinary evidence of malfunction of the “mind” our shallow intuitive presumptions are not shaken and dislodged.  Our minds need to be prepared to intelligently and logically interpret what we see and hear in these cases, but most of us have been conditioned to misinterpret via pre-existing belief systems and fallacies that have been cultivated throughout our lives.

In the future, the discoveries of neuroscience will cause the great many of us to be ashamed of how we convicted and punished the victims of severe mental illness.  Medical science will transform the subjective into the objective by such means that the exculpatory nature of certain symptoms of psychosis can no longer be ignored and politicized to serve our retributionist impulses.  Nevertheless, even though duejusticeproject looks to the future of neuroscience to bring enlightenment to the criminal justice system and to our laws, the knowledge and understanding requisite for the administration of moral justice to those with severe mental illness exists here, now, and even in the distant past.

Consider the landmark criminal trial of Daniel M’Naghten in 1843 which led to a (literally) royal backlash against the just acquittal of a mentally ill man.  Even in that time, the physicians who were called by the defense had a firm comprehension of psychotic delusions and how the victim was deprived of all capacity from restraint.  These doctors were armed with experience, training, education, and intelligence.  There are doctors, researchers, neuroscientists, and even lay people in our own time that have keen insight into psychotic disorders and how they impact human behavior in relation to unlawful behaviors.  Neuroscientists in the present understand a great deal about neurocognitive dysfunction even though the brain is the great frontier -shrouded in mysteries and confounding complexity.

The problem is, that for the vast majority of the populace, there is such intractable hostility against the insanity defense that there is just no foothold for the enlightened expert in the courtroom to try to scale the mountain of ignorance.  Moreover, there is not just a lack of understanding creating a void or a vacuum, that space is actually filled to its boundaries with fallacies and misunderstandings of such magnitude that they function like an aggregated pseudo-psychosis of the people.  Readers should get acquainted with Pete Earley’s book “Crazy: A Father’s Search through America’s Mental Health Madness,”.  This collective “thought disorder” has deformed every aspect of law and public policy.  In 1843 the M’Naghten physicians testified with the composed confidence of professionals who were accustomed to deferential respect.  Juries in our day routinely spurn the testimony of defense witnesses of the stature of the M’Naghten doctors.

In an upcoming blog post, duejusticeproject will sharpen the point and clarify our charge against the prosecutorial appeal to ignorance “You can be mentally ill and still know right from wrong” –  a mashup of a non-specific “diagnosis” with the dissonant, improperly applied M’Naghten’s Rule.   We will clarify the truth and the untruth as we see it because we stand for reasoned objectivity and logic in the application of the law.  We will also be commenting on the landmark Sell vs United States case in regard to the issue of “competency restoration” and other matters.





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