The inspiration for this post comes from an email from Will, who asked about vampires in Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. Buffyverse vampires are a bit different from most mythological or fictional vampires. For legal purposes, the biggest difference is that Buffyverse vampires retain their memories from mortal life but are possessed by a demon’s soul, so they tend to be evil. This raises some interesting questions about vampires’ potential for criminal liability, especially for the character of Angel.
Note that I’m going to gloss over the issue of whether vampires are subject to the human justice system in the first place. It’s arguable that, as non-humans, they lack legal rights. From a legal perspective, the original human has died because their cardiovascular functions have irreversibly ceased. Cal. Health & Safety Code § 7180(a) (the California version of the Uniform Determination of Death Act). Since they’re dead, they can’t be human. That’s not very satisfying or interesting, though, so I’m going to ignore it.
I. Mental Capacity
Most vampires seem to be mentally competent, or at least as competent as they were in life. Some of them aren’t very bright, but they aren’t anywhere near the level of mental incapacity required to be a defense under California law. In California, the test for mental incapacity is the same as for insanity: the accused must be incapable of understanding the nature of his or her act or distinguishing right from wrong. People v. Phillips, 83 Cal. App. 4th 170 (2d Dist. 2000). Vampires seem mentally capable of understanding what they are doing, and they can distinguish right from wrong. It’s pretty hard to revel in doing evil acts if you don’t understand that they’re morally wrong.
For pretty much the same reason, it’s hard to argue that vampires are insane, at least under California’s M’Naghten test, which is defined by statute. Cal. Penal Code § 25(b). Under a different test, such as the irresistible impulse test, they might be found insane, but California does not recognize that test. People v. Severance, 138 Cal.App.4th 305, 324 (3d Dist. 2006). The Severance case is actually surprisingly applicable: “The gist of defendant’s claim of insanity was that after he was hit on the head in January 2000, Satan took control of his mind and body and he did things he does not normally do—namely, rob two stores. In the words Flip Wilson playing Geraldine, “the Devil made him do it.” In essence, defendant’s claim of insanity was a claim he acted under an “irresistible impulse.” The irresistible impulse test, however, has long been discredited in California as a test for legal insanity.” Severance, 138 Cal.App.4th at 324.
III. The Special Case of Angel
The character of Angel is (almost) unique among vampires. Through various means throughout Buffy and Angel, his human soul is restored, lost, and restored again. In his human-souled state, he is called Angel; his demonic form is called Angelus. Angel feels remorse for the terrible deeds of Angelus and works to set things right. Does this change anything? From a legal perspective, I think not. Essentially, he is akin to a person with a recurring mental illness that doesn’t quite rise to the level of insanity.
One might argue that Angel shouldn’t be punished for Angelus’s crimes. After all, it’s not like Angel is likely to commit any of the same crimes. But actually, incarcerating Angel would serve the function of incapacitation (i.e. preventing Angel from turning into Angelus and wreaking havoc). So it wouldn’t solely be an exercise in (mostly pointless) retribution. And arguably it would also serve a deterrent function for other vampires by showing that they can be caught and punished by humans. They may be evil, but they’re not stupid. Well, mostly.
IV. A Side-Note About Blood
Since the vampires in the Buffyverse can survive on animal blood, they can’t claim the defense of necessity for drinking human blood, at least non-consensually. Angel generally drinks animal blood, so that’s not a problem for him, and California allows animal blood to be sold for human consumption. 3 CCR § 904.17.
Assuming the vampires are considered human (and thus capable of committing crimes in the first place), then their vampirism probably won’t save them from criminal liability. In Angel’s case, that means he’s potentially liable for a couple centuries’ worth of killing, since there is no statute of limitations on murder. The animal blood is probably legit, though, so I’m sure that’s a certain comfort.