The Law and Psychiatry of The Walking Dead

Following our joint WonderCon panel (Not Guilty by Reason of Zombification? Law and Forensic Psychiatry After the Zombie Apocalypse“), the psychiatrists from Broadcast Thought, Ryan, and I co-wrote an article for Wired focusing on some of the legal and medical issues raised by The Walking Dead.  We think you’ll enjoy it.  Be aware: the article contains spoilers for the most recent season, including the finale.

9 responses to “The Law and Psychiatry of The Walking Dead

  1. Do we know that when they reanimate that the heart and lungs don’t fire up after the brain kicks in? Just about any time someone is shown waking up as a walker, one of the first things they do is take a breath. I know the CDC guy talked about the brain but IIRC he didn’t mention the other organs so I don’t think we could conclude that they also don’t function. Other systems like the digestive system seem to kick in, otherwise zombies would eventually eat until they explode like that guy in Se7en. If that’s true where does the poop go? But I digress. So if the heart and lungs do start functioning, how does that change the assessment of zombies’ legal responsibilities. On a side note I don’t think it matters as a zombie can’t assist in it’s own defense nor would it understand the charges brought against it and therefore couldn’t stand trial.

    • Decapitated walker heads remain active so long as the brain is undamaged, so they don’t require a functioning circulatory or respiratory system. When a walker first ‘awakens’, their heart and lungs are typically in good physical condition (depending on the cause of death), but over time they will rot just like the rest of their body. Similarly, damaging a walker’s lungs or heart will not kill it, only destroying the brain.

  2. If Carl waited for Lori to die before shooting her and reanimating, would he still be charged with desecrating a corpse or somehing of the like?

    • It would depend on state law, and the necessity defense would be much stronger for a charge of abuse of a corpse than for murder. Georgia’s abuse of a corpse statute is fairly narrow, and our conclusion is that it wouldn’t apply to that situation, oddly enough.

  3. Nice piece! And a very clever way to get across a surprising variety of teaching points related to forensic psychiatry. I’d like to ask permission to steal….er….borrow some of your ideas in my lectures.

    That said, I’m a little surprised that when you discuss the legal responsibilities of the undead that you didn’t mention the obvious lack of mens rea issue. Even given that they didn’t meet the legal or medical definition of ‘dead,’ a zombie killing would seem to be a clear result of automatism and therefore not a crime at all. Or at most, one could pose a form of somnambulism defense.

    And the issue of incompetence has a delicate twist to it as well. Given that a zombie would be permanently incompetent to stand trial and likely dangerous, he still would not be committable since the incompetence and dangerousness would not be due to a mental illness. Unless, of course, the future DSM V redefines ‘death’ as an Axis I disorder which unfortunately is not outside the realm of possibility.

    And let’s not even think about how to choose the right CPT code for reimbursement. Now THERE’S a horror story for you.

    • We didn’t get to mens rea, insanity, competency, or the like when discussing The Walking Dead because we concluded that the walkers were dead. If they’re dead, then that moots any further discussion (and we had a word limit). In the WonderCon presentation, however, we considered a lot of other zombie fiction, including some in which the zombies would be considered legally alive, and so all of those issues come up.

  4. Oh yeah, I forgot:
    And what about the civil issues brought up by the birth of baby Judith?

    The baby’s mother and biological father are both dead. The custodial father is of questionable parenting capacity since he’s wandering around having visual hallucinations of his late wife. The psychological parent (if there could be one for a newborn) would appear to be anybody’s guess since everybody in the group appears to take a turn caring for her. Oh, and I guess now Rick would have to lose his handgun permit now that he has shown himself to be both mentally ill and dangerous…

  5. Suppose the zombie menace was controlled and a functioning government was able to reform. There would be such a back log of cases of murder, looting, trespassing, etc, I would imagine a lot of prosecutorial discression would come into play particularly with the inability to police to collect evidence that has washed away, decayed, or walked away (puns intended). I think Carl would be okay with shooting Lori, I mean how will the state prove she wasn’t dead before she was shot? He would be in trouble for shooting the kid fleeing the prison though. The governor should probably find his way to a non extradition country though.

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