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Smedley Wormwood is an accountant who is indicted for embezzling funds from the company for which he works. He generally presents an impression of an unobtrusive, conventional, compliant, "vanilla" individual. When his lawyer interviews him about the charges, Smedley seems innocent, frightened, and bewildered. In discussing the details of events around the time of the alleged crime, Smedley becomes somewhat vague and then admits to some lapses in recall. Smedley then startles the lawyer by apparently undergoing a marked change in attitude, tone of voice, and apparent self-identity. The lawyer realizes that she is now discussing the crime with a confident, angry, arrogant client who identifies himself as Slick and announces that he took the money this time, just as he has before. Slick describes prior crimes of various types and laughs about the possibility that "the worm" will be convicted and punished for this episode.
A clinical evaluation results in the diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder ("DID"), more traditionally referred to as multiple personality disorder. Wormwood experiences two states of consciousness. He holds a job as an accountant, rents an apartment, and carries on the mundane affairs of life as Smedley. At certain times, however, he takes on the consciousness of Slick, the psychopathic personality who engages in a variety of types of exploitative and criminal behavior. While Smedley is anxious, compliant, and passive, Slick is confident, arrogant, and aggressive. Smedley has no awareness of Slick or of conduct performed as Slick. Smedley is sometimes embarrassed by lapses in memory and by episodes in which he finds himself in strange places or encounters unfamiliar people who seem to know him. Slick is aware of Smedley and of Smedley's experience. Slick perceives Smedley's experience from the perspective of an observer, and he despises "the worm."
Reported cases occasionally address the significance of DID for criminal responsibility. Courts and commentators debate the proper approach to this question without arriving at any consensus. Most often, this dispute addresses the most appropriate manner in which to apply the insanity defense or some alternative criteria of criminal responsibility. Reflecting upon the criminal responsibility of defendants who engage in criminal conduct while manifesting DID provides an opportunity to examine three more general issues. The first involves the exculpatory significance of impaired consciousness as it occurs in DID or in other disorders. Second, this analysis might inform the conception of accountable agency represented by the voluntary act requirement included in the standard legal criteria of criminal responsibility. Third, this analysis demonstrates that in order to understand the exculpatory significance of a particular type of psychopathology, one must integrate description and explanation of the specific pattern of functional impairment with the principles of political morality underlying the applicable criteria of criminal responsibility.