The justice system is a gumbo of complex laws and regulations born out of centuries-old English doctrines, statutes and case law decisions, all of which define the boundaries between legal and criminal behavior. Murder, for instance, is defined by the unlawful taking of another’s life. It’s not against the law to kill in self-defense. And, depending on the state of mind of the defendant, an unlawful behavior may warrant a less serious charge. If I kill someone with planning and intent – say because I’m in line for a hefty life insurance reward – that’s first degree premeditated murder. In California, I’d be sentenced to life in prison if convicted. What if I react impulsively to the repeated taunting of a drunk and punch him in the face, causing convulsions and death? I’d likely be convicted of manslaughter, which is defined as killing without forethought or malice. It’s the proverbial “crime of passion.” A prison awaits me, but for a limited number of years, likely from 3 to 10, depending on my past criminal record.
In both cases, a life is lost. So why the difference? It’s because the legal system adheres to a folk psychological view of the human nature. It’s a view that the law assumes is held by all jurors, all the “folks” who are responsible for deciding on a defendant’s culpability. So what is this folk psychological perspective?
Human beings are viewed as emotional individuals with thoughts, desires, beliefs and motivations that drive behavior and decision making. We’re moral agents who act with intentions and for reasons. This is what’s meant by free will, and why we are responsible for our actions under the law.
A crime occurred when a person committed an unlawful act with purpose and with the moral awareness that it was wrong to do. Here’s where the rubber meets the road – where the degree of blameworthiness is marked. For instance, during a homicide, which is defined as the killing of one person by another, was the defendant aware of his actions at the time of the killing? Did he do it with a malicious purpose? Without awareness and purposeful action, there’s no crime, only tragedy. Say I have an epileptic seizure while driving. I lose consciousness and kill 3 people. I won’t be charged with murder, unless I should have been aware of my medical vulnerability (had I been diagnosed with a seizure disorder and decided not to take my medication?)
The degree of responsibility is linked to the defendant’s intention, his thoughts and awareness at the time of a crime. A middle aged man finds his best friend in bed with his wife? In a state of a “blind rage,” he strangles his friend to death. Was he acting with deliberation and full awareness of the consequences of his behavior at that moment of fury? He’d likely be convicted of voluntary manslaughter, which is killing another with purpose, but in a state of passion that may cause a reasonable person to act unreasonably and violently. Or was it more or less a conscious decision to “let go” and get violent? That’s what a jury would have to decide, based on the evidence presented at the trial, including expert testimony by a psychological forensic expert about his state of mind at the time of the killing. Did he have a history of aggression, for instance? Was his violence conduct an anomaly of sorts, an emotion “glitch” set off by an unmanageable emotional upheaval? The jurors’ common sense understanding of the defendant’s psychological condition and mind-state at the time will guide their opinions.
The entire edifice of our justice system boils down to a few simple folk psychological questions: Did the defendant behave with a reasonable awareness of what he was doing at the time of the crime? Were his actions under reasonable, not perfect control of his deadly actions?
It’s this straightforward, common sense view of behavior and emotional life that forms the basis of our jury system. Jurors hear from and consider the opinions of experts but, as non-specialists in the law or in the field of psychology, determine the defendant’s guilt or innocence. We trust that the ordinary citizen understand that, under ordinary conditions, a person’s behavior is prompted by motivations, desires and reasons for which an individual is held accountable.
In the next blog, I’ll present an in-depth psychological perspective on the nature of human nature.