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THE CASES were real, the circumstances surreal — or at least out of ordinary experience.
While sleepwalking, a woman dreams that a soldier is attacking her daughter, and in a defensive act starts swinging an axe and kills her. A man shoots and kills his sister-in-law during a post-Vietnam flashback. Another man strangles an old friend after suffering a seizure.
The criminal justice system normally punishes people who commit murder. But what happens when the accused is in an altered state of consciousness?
In a compelling lecture last February that was part of the Penn Humanities Forum on Sleep and Dreams, Professor Stephen J. Morse explained why such cases present a problem for criminal law — and for society.
Under criminal law, “we shouldn’t blame and punish people unless they deserve it or unless they are at fault,” said Morse, the Ferdinand Wakeman Hubbell Professor of Law and Professor of Psychology and Law in Psychiatry.
Therein lies the rub. How do you fix blame when someone is, say, sleepwalking and unaware of her actions?
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