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Criminal Liability in the World of Dollhouse


Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse is a science-fiction masterpiece based on a simple, yet mind-bending premise: What if you could wipe your memory and personality and replace them with a memory or personality built to your (or someone else’s specifications). In the world of Dollhouse, you can “live” forever by transferring a personality profile from body to body. You can also create custom people by specifying a personality profile and finding a person to “host” that profile. To that end, you can create the perfect romantic partner, teacher, spy, or even all of the above at the same time.

This week, I’m going to focus on some interesting legal/philosophical conundrums posed by the Dollhouse technology. Suppose a doll commits a crime. Who should be punished? While your gut reaction may be to punish the doll, that could prove difficult or impossible. What happens if the doll’s personality profile was removed or overwritten? Would it be unfair to punish the host for acts committed by a different personality?

There are two sets of facts that bear heavily on how courts would address this issue. The first set of facts relates to the circumstances surrounding the creation of the doll:

  • Did the host agree to the personality wipe, or was it involuntary?
  • Did the host know what personality would be placed in their body? Did the host choose that personality?
  • Did the host have reason to believe that the doll was going to commit the crime? Did the host want or intend for the doll to commit the crime?

The second set of facts relates to the doll’s status during the trial and at sentencing:

  • Was the host’s personality restored to the host body?
  • Is the current, post-crime personality profile stable — that is, do we have reason to believe that the personality profile currently in control of the body (whether host, the doll, or another personality) will remain in control?

Because this column is inspired by the premise of Dollhouse, I am going to assume that the personality in control of the host body at the time of trial is stable. While later episodes of the show demonstrate that repeated personality imprints can cause doll personalities to mix with host personalities, the show characterizes that instability as a flaw in the underlying technology. Accordingly, I consider some future version of the technology that has obtained complete stability.

Because I assume that the post-crime personality is stable, we only need to consider the nature of the host’s involvement with the personality wipe, and which personality profile is in the body at the time of trial. We can start with the low hanging fruit. If the doll’s current personality committed the crime, and is in stable control of the body at the time of trial, the doll could be punished just like any other criminal defendant. Because the doll took the criminal actions, the doll would be liable for those actions. And because the doll’s presence in the host body is stable, punishing the doll would not raise any fairness concerns. For all intents and purposes the host personality would no longer exist.

But what if the host personality is in control of the body? In that scenario, the host’s liability would depend on the extent to which they were involved with the personality wipe and transfer. If the procedure was involuntary, then the defendant could plead not guilty by reason of temporary insanity. In mounting this defense, the defendant could argue that they were not in control of their actions at the time of the crime. Moreover, because the host personality is stable, there is no risk that the criminal personality will resurface, and thus no reason to punish, or even incarcerate, the defendant. While the temporary insanity defense is controversial, it seems quite justified in the face of these facts, and is consistent with a basic sense of fairness.

On the other hand, the host could be held responsible for the doll’s actions if the host personality agreed to have the doll’s personality placed in their body with the intention that the doll would commit the crime. In this scenario, the host personality would be punished not for the doll’s actions, per se, but rather for the host personality’s direct role in causing the crime. The host personality would be punished for its direct involvement in planning and intending to have the crime take place and taking specific action to set the crime in motion.  What’s interesting about this scenario is that the justification for punishment is different depending on if we view the host and doll as the same person or as separate people. If we view the host and doll as the same person, we can hold the host responsible for planning and carrying out the crime. If we view the host and doll as separate people, then the host would not be directly liable for the crime (since the host wasn’t the one who actually committed the crime), but would instead be liable as the doll’s accomplice or co-conspirator.

Of course, criminal responsibility isn’t always all-or-nothing, and there is quite a bit of ground between involuntary transfer and intimate involvement. For example, if a host programmed a Dollhouse machine to install a personality profile at random and ends up getting the personality profile of an unstable serial killer, a court could find that the host personality was reckless. If the serial killer doll then went on a killing spree, the host personality could be convicted of involuntary manslaughter, or even third-degree murder.  Similarly, if a host agrees to let others use his body without any oversight or constraints (as the Dollhouse characters did), the host might be held responsible in the same way that a drug user can be held responsible for actions taken while intoxicated.

The world of Dollhouse is scary, but it is also an intellectual playground, overflowing with weighty questions of self and justice. The criminal liability questions addressed here only scratch the surface. Do host personality profiles have a right to control their original bodies? Do dolls have a right to prevent the host personalities from reclaiming their bodies? Should we punish dolls who are programmed with the memories and personality profiles of a murderer?  Should we punish personality profiles that do not have a body? How different must two personality profiles be before we can say they correspond to two different people? By thinking about these and similar questions, we can build a greater understanding of identity and justice … at least until our next Treatment.

About the author

Adam Adler
Adam is a lawyer, comic book fan, and stand-up comedian based in Washington, D.C. Adam has been writing Escape the Law since 2018 to explore the intersection of law with comic books, movies, and video games. From time to time, Adam also provides game reviews and commentaries. By day, Adam is an attorney specializing in intellectual property, technology, and comic book law. For example, Adam represented a comic book author in a trademark dispute against DC Comics, which claimed to have the exclusive right to use the word “Super.” Adam is also at the forefront of disputes regarding deepfake technology, copyrights, and patents. Adam obtained his law degree from Yale Law School in 2015 and obtained a B.S. in Mathematical & Computational Science from Stanford University in 2012. Feel free to contact Adam via e-mail at [email protected]