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You are naked in public! Did your brain make you do it?

Friday, March 2, 2012
posted by Rita Handrich

Wardrobe malfunctions. We know what they are. Some of us have had them. We can’t show you a picture of a wardrobe malfunction though because this is not that sort of website. Yet the question is simple: Can your brain make you disrobe in public without your awareness? As in, “it’s not my client’s fault your Honor because their brain made them do it”.

The short answer is yes. Yes. So they say. Your brain can make you disrobe without conscious awareness. So should you be held legally responsible for the shock (and perhaps awe) of others as you unknowingly engage in public nudity? These physicians say no, at least not usually.

They briefly review the skepticism directed at the “epilepsy defense” occasionally used in criminal trials. A famous example is from the defense of Jack Ruby. His attorneys said he killed Lee Harvey Oswald in the midst of an epileptic seizure and was unaware of what he was doing. There is, according to the authors, no real evidence of violent or criminal acts being linked to epileptic seizures.

However, the authors of this article are treating physicians, and they believe there are times when an epilepsy defense may be legitimate. These are times when people are legally charged for being naked in public and claim to have no recollection of how it happened (and evidently, with no alcohol, fraternity affiliation or ‘Girls Gone Wild’ involvement). When they have a history of seizure-related disrobing (apparently common enough to be written about here), the authors suggest that traditional legal consequences are inappropriate.

They share case studies of three patients who disrobed as part of their seizure pattern. Two of them were videotaped disrobing during sleep studies with EEGs documenting a simultaneously occurring seizure. The third was sleeping naked with his girlfriend and wandered into the hall, inadvertently exposing himself to her teenage daughter. (He was charged with and convicted of indecency with a minor and went to jail.)

For those instances where the public nudity is not deemed of a sexual nature, the physicians suggest the following ‘tests’ to determine if the public nudity is likely an artifact of the epilepsy.

The patient has a prior diagnosis of epilepsy, and the public nudity is out of character for the individual and “contextually inappropriate”.

Evidence of premeditation or attempt to conceal the behavior should not be present.

Available witnesses describe an apparent disorder of consciousness during the event.

The patient’s memory for the public nudity should be impaired.

There is much skepticism over “my brain made me do it” defenses. These physicians offer reasoned evidence for showing mercy in legal cases of seizure-related disrobing that may be public.

Wortzel, H., Strom, L., Anderson, A., Maa, E., & Spitz, M. (2012). Disrobing Associated with Epileptic Seizures and Forensic Implications Journal of Forensic Sciences, 57 (2), 550-552 DOI: 10.1111/j.1556-4029.2011.01995.x


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