Friday, January 08, 2010

How Would the Law Punish Siamese Twins If One of Them Committed Murder?

siamese_twins A fascinating legal question:

How would the law punish Siamese twins if one of the twins committed murder without the other being involved?

The answer: No one knows.

There isn't much case law to work with on this question, since in the United States, at least, conjoined twins represent something like 0.0005 percent of all live births—with an even smaller number surviving into adulthood. The conjoined twins who aren't separated at birth and do manage to grow up have so far tended to be more or less exemplary citizens.

That said, there have been a few recorded instances of conjoined criminality. By one account, the original Siamese twins, Chang and Eng Bunker, were arrested over a scuffle with a doctor who tried to examine them, but never prosecuted. Nor were they ever charged with bigamy, despite having taken two wives…

A more recent case concerned the Filipino twins Lucio and Simplicio Godina, who as children were rescued from a Brooklyn, N.Y., sideshow, and later toured the United States as the "only pair of male Siamese twins on Earth." In March 1925, newspapers claimed that Lucio had learned how to drive a car and been arrested after his vehicle grazed a carabao cart on a street in Manila. Simplicio supposedly appealed the case on the grounds that as an innocent man, he could not legally be incarcerated—and the judge let both twins go free. A similar story was reported in the New York Times in 1929: This time, Lucio was able to escape punishment for making an improper left turn in downtown Los Angeles.

These stories—true or not—reveal how difficult it would be to punish a conjoined criminal with an innocent twin. Let's say you wanted to throw the evil sibling in jail. There's no way to do that without incarcerating the good one as well (unless you convinced him to take a job as a prison guard). Is there any way around this problem?


Clint D said...

This is the problem with law in general... using crazy scenarios like this to find new and interesting ways to decrease penalties for lawbreakers in general! Are your law profs getting to you, Bri? :-)

In my humble opinion the answer is "who cares"? Let the judge in the particular case try it based on moral circumstance and factual evidence and DON'T make it case law for the entire country.

This emphasis on case law is killing America and has caused our laws to drift far more than if we simply focused on electing and assigning judges with good morals.

Somehow I don't think Moses and his appointed judges/overseers looked up case law. They just made (in theory) morally good choices in each circumstance.

Clint D said...

To take it further, consider two things. First, why is it that we quantify law to the degree that it almost feels as of we could someday replace judges with supercomputers capable of analyzing case law and arriving at perfectly "just" rulings. Second we have somehow, quite recently come to a place where we incarcerate people for extended periods of time... As if this is somehow justice. In the past there was a trial - which led to a verdict either of restitution or death.

This doesn't sit well with me and has always struck me as odd and completely backwards.

Brian Hollar said...

Clint, a few comments/questions for you:

1) If one takes the attitude of "who cares" in this case, it is hard to claim they care about justice. What introduces the complexity in this case is the inseparable third party.

2) Part of the reason this is such a thorny issue is there is little case law to give guidance. The flip side of that is that any decisions from this kind of case would make it case law for whatever jurisdiction the judge has authority over for the inseparable third parties. (If you follow the link, it gives examples of pregnant women being imperfect analogs to Siamese twins.)

3) I believe the emphasis on case law is one of the strongest parts of American law. Without either that or civil law (statute-based law -- America is actually a hybrid of common (case) law and civil) you are left to arbitrary decisions of judges. Judges with "good morals" are a scarce commodity and I much prefer a system with checks and balances to correct corruption and wrong decisions. Even assuming a reasonable number of judges with "good morals" exists, they are still human and will make mistakes. Systems of review and constraints of "stare decisis" (following previous cases) helps keep judges in check and gives them incentives to act as though they have "good morals".

4) Common law developed in large part in response to oppressive and arbitrary rule of law under other regimes. If you leave judges/kings/governors able to rule and make law on a whim, you incentivize corruption, abuse, and injustice. This power attracts the most unsavory sorts of people into the judiciary/kingship/government. Limit the power of the office and you get less bad people presiding over you with less ability to do harm. This is a good thing.

5) Every system in history that relies on finding people of "good morals" to make it work has ended in disaster. Look at the French Revolution, Communism, etc. What made the American Revolution so profound is that the Founders based our government on the assumption that no one is completely good. The acknowledgement, assumption, and safeguards for this is what makes America's legal and political framework so robust. (In my opinion, the American view is a much more accurate one of human nature.)

6) If we could rely on "good morals", we wouldn't need judges in the first place.

7) Moses and his judges lived in a mostly illiterate society, fleeing from a oppressive power who had a different legal regime/philosophy, and had very few previous cases they could rely upon -- even if they wanted to.

8) Most things judges deal with in the courtroom are deeply human -- hearsay, prejudice, perceptions, evaluations of relevance of evidence, etc. Unless we can get a supercomputer that is self-aware and conscious, we won't be able to replace human judges with supercomputers.

9) When was there a legal system that only had restitution and death as the only two options for punishment? Maybe thousands of years ago, but never in America. Jail emerges in nearly every society once it becomes advanced enough to build prisons that can reliably contain prisoners and the society becomes wealthy enough to support people who specialize in guarding and managing the prisoners. How is a punishment system that can take away money, life, or time inferior to a punishment system that can only take away money or life? How is this backwards?

10) How do you, personally, define "justice"?

11) Yes. I have been assimilated. :)

Clint D said...

First off, you make some good points. There is certainly a good argument for "this is the best we can hope for until we get to heaven on earth" - my re-phrasing not your words. I have more passion than logic in my answers and statements.

1) My comment of "who cares" was in relation to case law, which I find has become a treacherous slope towards including all sorts of amoral law into our system and setting it up as a mandate for future laws. One guys in pennsyltucky, Iowa sues about how he thinks teaching abstinence in schools is unconstitutional as it pushes religious beliefs; and that condom-wrapping a cucumber is the right way to go... next thing you know, it's the law of the land. Fair? Technically, yes. Good? Heck, no.

2) I place less value on case law as I've stated above. While designed as a safeguard I believe it is now a very bad system of making it (near) impossible to undo morally bad decisions that have become the law of the land. I have no valid alternative given that we cant simply snap our fingers and instantly receive morally-sound judges with Judeo-Christian moral guidance systems.

3) "Judges with "good morals" are a scarce commodity" - this is sad, but I understand your point. It frustrates me, though.

4) Appeals seems to help this not be quite an unsolvable issue.

5) True Christianity seems to do OK, though its abuses, and those who falsely claim to operate in its name, do not.

6) I would say that electing or appointing judges with good morals is no less important than selecting a President. Unfortunately, we have made judge selection a secondhand decision that most don't pay much attention to. If we took this seriously, our judges would be esteemed, paid well, and would be carefully chosen from morally sound candidates. I wish we knew more and people understood this to mean "you are accused of murder, wrongfully... who do you want to judge you?"

7) Theocracy gave them the moral codes to follow and the rest was judgments based on those commandments. Solomon had no case law for the two women fighting over the single surviving baby (a sad description of the times indeed). While each case can be complex, a morally-good decision based on those principles (ten commandments and theocratic principles) beats out a labyrinth of case law any day... idealistically-speaking.

Clint D said...

8) Understood, but the voluminous case law seems to be reducing common sense and emphasizing case history to a point where it overshadows logic, good morals and common sense. Ie. Case law can make it possible someday for Christian churches to not be able to speak out on moral issues from the pulpit without losing their 501c3 status (or worse, just make it a punishable offense). Taken to its extreme, case law can do a lot of damage - and I believe it already does in the case of abortion.

9) FWIW:

Jails were never intended for long-term incarceration... we practically perfected this bad idea in the 1900s... Think Wild West for a picture of the original jail concept.. short stay, see the judge, payback or hang 'em... lol. There were of course abuses, dungeons, etc... but this country had its head on straight until the 19th Century. Somehow we convinced ourselves that jailing people was a good idea. Restitution and punishment should be the only results to crime. Imagine if a judges 'guilty verdict' choices were: 1) restitution or flogging (or both), or 2) death. I think crime would be lower and more people would receive recompense. Instead of the thief going to jail, he would have to get a job and pay back the person he stole from. What good does throwing him in jail do - not to mention the fact that this costs the very people money whom he stole from in the first place?

10) In this sense, a result/solution that satisfies the infraction of, or acquits a person from guilt of, a crime committed for which a person is accused. On earth, I believe justice is limited to acquittal, compensation or punishment. more often than not, it's a fine (that often doesn't benefit the victim) and/or jail time - that never benefits the victim.

11) And I am naive and grossly ignorant. :-)