English jurist William Blackstone famously stated that “it is better than ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” That line of thinking is precisely what makes so many people fascinated by the legal problem of what penalties would be fair if one conjoined twin breaks the law. After all, punishing the guilty twin would invariably mean punishing the innocent twin simultaneously, right? This specific legal issue has been examined in depth by legal experts worldwide, regularly used as a thought experiment (particularly in law schools), and explored in shows like American Horror Story.
What Happens When One Conjoined Twin Commits a Crime?
Obviously, for a crime like petty theft, the issue could be resolved simply by making the guilty twin pay a fine, for example. The fact that you cannot punish one of the twins without punishing the other leads to a serious problem with America’s cruel and unusual punishment laws because any punishment of an innocent individual would be cruel and unusual. Even just subjecting the innocent twin to probation would still restrict their activities in an unacceptable way.
But the issue becomes more troubling when it involves a serious offense like murder that most people feel must be punished through incarceration or even the death penalty. The problem with charging a conjoined twin with murder is that if only one of the two persons committed the act, it is ethically wrong to sentence them both to prison or, even worse, to death.
The History of Conjoined Twins Accused of Crimes
Looking at historical records, there have only been a handful of conjoined twins charged with crimes.
One famous example involved Italian conjoined twins Lazarus and Joannes Baptista Colloredo, who made a living as freak show entertainers in the 1600s. According to some historians, Lazarus killed a man who ridiculed him excessively, but the courts were unwilling to execute him as it would mean killing his brother as well.
The only one that seems to have occurred under the American legal system involved Chang and Eng, the two most famous conjoined twins in history (the pair even served as inspiration for the term “Siamese twin”). Sometime in the early 1930s, a spectator squeezed Cheng’s hand so tightly that Cheng punched him. The spectator charged Cheng with assault, but the judge ruled that while Cheng should be sentenced to jail time, forcing Eng to go to jail would amount to false imprisonment. In a case involving something as serious as murder, the sentence would be even more lengthy and unfair to the innocent party.
Could One Twin be Considered an Accessory to Murder?
While many people question this option when presented with this thought experiment, in actuality, this would depend on the situation. In the case involving the Colloredo twins, for example, Joannes Baptista was a parasitic twin who was mentally handicapped and could not control his own limbs. Obviously, this means he was no accessory to murder.
In the American Horror Story twins, the classic thought experiment gets an extra twist because, in this case, while Bette kills the twin’s mother, Dot has the power to stop her and refuses. Dot also helps Bette cover up the murder, lying to the police about what happened. All these things mean that Dot would also be guilty of a crime, though not guilty of murder. As a result, they could be sentenced to prison, but only for the lesser crime committed by Dot. In California, that would mean the twin’s maximum sentence would be 3 years in prison for being an accessory, a far cry from the possible life sentence Dot could get for murder.
A Trial Like No Other
If a conjoined twin were charged for being an accessory to a murder committed by their sibling, the case would be quite notable. To minimize the sentence, their criminal attorney must ensure the jury did not judge both individuals together. It might also mean that the twin charged with being an accessory may have to take the stand against their sibling, which could be the first time a witness for the prosecution would have to take the stand while sitting right next to the defendant.
This issue brings up several other legal questions regarding a conjoined twin’s right not to testify against their sibling. Additionally, many people wonder if the twin guilty of the lesser crime could voluntarily undergo surgery that would result in the death of their sibling who was sentenced to the death penalty in exchange for a reduced sentence. Whatever the outcome, the trial and its resulting decisions would certainly end up going down in legal history.
The Law is Complex
In many ways, understanding the law is like wandering through an overgrown jungle, which is why it takes a skilled lawyer to help you navigate your legal issues. If you have any questions or would like to schedule a free initial consultation with criminal defense Peter M. Liss, please call (760) 643-4050.