The Nation: Is Brainwashing an Excuse?

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Until now, brainwashing has never held up as a successful plea in a federal court, though U.S. military tribunals have acquitted prisoners of war who claimed that they had been brainwashing victims. Richard Sprague, the Philadelphia prosecutor who won four first-degree murder convictions in the killing of United Mine Workers' union leader Jock Yablonski, warns: "It would really attack the fundamentals of criminal law, which holds an individual responsible for his actions. If this happens, you are going to be turning the criminal courtroom into a psychiatrist's couch." Georgetown University Law Professor Samuel Dash, the majority counsel for the Senate Watergate hearings, believes brainwashing falls "somewhere in-between" the two traditional legal defenses for felonies—inability to determine right from wrong and extreme duress—and does not quite qualify for acquittal under either of them.

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