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Amnesia of Criminals While Commiting a Crime

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Amnesia for crimes is a controversial issue with legal implications. Claims of amnesia are quite common in clinical practice, and because dissociative states fall under a defense of mental illness to mental health professionals, it is often necessary to provide expert testimony to cases involving crime-related amnesia. It happens when a person blocks out certain information, often related to a stressful or traumatic event, the person unable to remember important personal information. When people lose their memory, they can forget everything about their life, including their name, and they lose their entire sense of self. Their experiences and memories help shape who they are. Also, time is a powerful force that changes people’s desires, results in their values, and changes their personalities. In 1985, Mr. Madison was convicted of the shooting death of a Mobile police officer in Alabama. He was due to be executed by lethal injection but was given a last-minute stay of execution. After some strokes, he suffers from dementia and memory impairment, and can no longer remember committing the crime. The philosophical question is: what happens to the person who can’t remember committing a crime should be punished for his/her crimes?

According to John Locke, the answer is ‘no.’ He thinks that if you don’t remember to do a given act, then you are not the same person as the one who done the act. John Locke claims that personal identity is a matter of psychological continuity. He considered personal identity to be founded on consciousness or memory. For example, suppose that a boy B, remembers being a child, C. Suppose further that adult, A, remembers being B, but cannot remember anything about her childhood. According to the memory criterion, A is the same person as B, A is the same person as C, but impossibly A is not the same person as C. A past person is psychologically continuous to a future person when a chain of psychologically connected people is connected to them. Continuity is like the relationship that all links to a single iron chain to each other. In the example above, C, B, and A are all psychologically continuous with each other. A and C are psychologically continuous as the connections link them to B. If an older citizen S could be thought of as A but not as B or C, then S would be nonetheless psychologically continuous in all three previous states. The difference between continuity and connection can help solve transitivity failures. This is because personal identity can refer vaguely to either psychological connection or psychological continuity, depending on the context. The traditional formulation of memory criterion runs on the failures of transitivity because it comes from identity only in terms of connectedness, which is not a transitive relationship.

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To the present, people responsible for past acts are concerned just as much as criminal law does when they convince and punish, then philosophers seem to accept that psychological connectedness is a more substantial relationship. Where the framing question is whether a current person is the same as a previous criminal, transitivity failures are not a concern. There are only two related time frames and are required for a transitivity failure. There are strong intuitions that support the relative importance of connectedness for identifying responsibility. Imagine that a person commits a crime and then disappears for years, forgets memories, loses his free will until he becomes a borderline person. The present person and the past criminal are fully continuous, but very loosely connected, if connected at all. Regardless of full continuity, the strong intuition is that punishing the present-day person would be inappropriate. One might argue that the better explanation of this intuition is that the present person is not worthy of punishment. However, that a doctor processes medicine to the person so that he regains ability, but does not restore his former psychology, he develops memories, aspirations, and personality again. The newly competent person would still be fully continuous with the former criminal, but the strong intuition remains that punishment for the past crime would be inappropriate. So in Locke’s view, Vernon Madison is not, now, morally responsible for the murder. He is not even the same person as who the commit the crime and hence does not deserve to be punished for it. But unfortunately, the Supreme Court of Alabama is set to execute a 67-year-old death row inmate who, because of his dementia, does not remember the crime he is being killed for. At some point, there are certain connections that criminal law must recognize that a person’s identity has changed, and everyone changes through natural psychological processes, and some suffer amnesia. All of us will eventually become different people. My point is a person should be free from prosecution or punishment and prosecuting fewer people and punishing them less harshly for crimes committed by another or previous self. 

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