Given the subject of last month’s Journal Club meeting and the current poll, I wanted to take a moment to talk about issues of volition, cognitive impairment and impulse control in law, especially as they relate to sex offenses, and the way neuroscience research is beginning to impact these relationships. I am going to consider the following as a general question, rather than analyzing the details of the particular case:
If a man is discovered to have committed sex crimes against children due to uncontrollable pedophilic urges, and those urges were proven to be caused by a brain tumor, is he guilty of his crimes?
As I write this, votes on the blog have “not guilty” beating “guilty” by 32 to 25. Honestly, the number of “not guilty” votes surprised me a bit, as there really isn’t a question about whether or not he committed the crimes. As I thought about it, I realized that perhaps for some the question of guilt isn’t whether he did it, but whether or not he should be held responsible, and then, if responsible, whether he should be punished. How we answer those questions depends on, one, our understanding of what it means to be responsible under the law, especially where neurological impairment is involved, two, what the purpose of punishment is, and three, the unique position of sex offenders, particularly pedophilic ones, within the United States.