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Psychopathy as Excuse?

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Ask most folks what a psychopath is and they will answer along the lines of "cold blooded" and "wicked to the core."  Movies like Silence of the Lambs have firmly embedded the idea of the psychopath as a highly dangerous and unrepentant offender within our cultural consciousness.  But as a scientific construct, what is psychopathy?   And should psychopaths be treated differently by the law?

The concept of psychopathy goes back to the writings of psychiatrist J.C. Prichard and his colleagues of the moral psychiatry movement during the early 19th century.  The idea that some people are fundamentally mentally unsound in matters related to moral decision making despite no other signs of mental illness is nothing new under the sun.  But the idea of psychopathy as a mental disorder has made a comeback of sorts, due largely to the work of psychologists such as Robert Hare and his contemporaries. And it should be of no surprise that given the strong penchant of psychopaths for antisocial behavior, psychopathy is frequently implicated in various criminal and civil proceedings where deprivation of liberty is at stake. 

But are psychopaths so different that they are not responsible?  That idea has gained ground in recent years as a number of prominent legal scholars and moral philosophers have weighed in on the issue.  One notable view suggests that the answer to that question is "yes" insofar as it relates to severe cases of psychopathy.  Other views also take the position that substantive criminal law should seriously consider extending excuse to psychopaths due to their deficits in emotional processing. 

In a forthcoming paper in the journal Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, a colleague and I contest this view and suggest that the law should continue to exclude psychopaths from considerations of excuse.  The issue is seminal, as some excuse proponents have begun to employ the highly seductive images of neuroscience to promote their view.  


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"Every month, defendants who claim a special victimization file with this Court petitions for certiorari that ask us to declare that some new class of evidence has mitigating relevance 'beyond the scope' of the State's sentencing criteria. It may be evidence of voluntary intoxication or of drug use. Or even-astonishingly-evidence that the defendant suffers from chronic 'antisocial personality disorder'-that is, that he is a sociopath. "

Graham v. Collins, 506 U.S. 461, 500 (1993)(Thomas, J., concurring).

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