Reflecting on Schrödinger’s cat the usual condition of cerebral nebulosity distracted my thoughts and the case of Rex v Jackson sprang to mind. This case, brought before Mr Justice Mole, required the jury to decide if suicide – whether successful or not - was an act of insanity.
The case of Rex v Jackson took place before, and in the same decade (1930s), as Erwin Schrödinger devised his thought experiment. The case could be considered very similar to Schrödinger’s cat, with an analogous Kafkaesque quality. It could even be inferred, perhaps, that Sir Ethelred Rutt K. C. (representing Oliver Jackson the accused) had more than a passing interest in quantum physics. Especially as in his summing up for the jury, Mr Justice Mole ‘confessed to a condition of faint cerebral nebulosity‘. The condition that afflicts most – including quantum physicists – when reflecting on Schrödinger’s cat.
Briefly: Oliver Jackson and a young woman, Emily Jones, 20, took poison together, as a result of which Jones died; but Jackson, after a long illness, survived. Jackson admitted that he helped administer the poison to Emily Jones’ before taking some himself. Having survived, he was then charged with murder and attempted suicide. Sir Ethelred asked the jury to acquit Jackson on both charges on the ground that he is, or was, of unsound mind and not responsible for his actions.
In putting his case to the jury, Sir Ethelred said: “At the inquest on Emily Jones, the coroner’s jury brought in a verdict that she took her own life while of unsound mind. At that date the prisoner was grievously ill in a prison hospital and was not expected to live. If he had died at the same time as Jones there is no doubt that the same coroner’s court would have found that he had committed suicide while of unsound mind. However, he was carefully nursed back to life at the State’s expense and by the servants of the State, and he is now charged by the State with a crime the penalty of which is death. Now, the State cannot have it both ways”.
Sir Ethelred continued: “The State assumes that a citizen who takes his own life was out of his mind when he did so. It is beyond all reason to say that he who does a thing successfully is of unsound mind, but that he who fails to do the same thing is of sound mind. The sounder the mind the more likely it is to direct the actions of the body with efficiency. Therefore, if a successful suicide be mad, a would-be suicide who fails must be raving.
You may consider that Jones and Jackson are one person, for they were united in misfortune, love, and political opinions, in mind, body, and soul. A jury has found that one half of this person was of unsound mind when it took poison. You, another jury, are asked by the Crown to say that the other half of the same person was of perfectly sound mind when doing the same action at the same moment, though this half had even greater cause for desperation and loss of control.
In other words, one jury is being asked to go in flat contradiction of another. But this would mean that one of them was wrong. Therefore the decision already arrived at is correct: the prisoner was of unsound mind at the time of the tragedy”.
Reflecting on Schrödinger’s cat being both alive and dead at the same time may cause cerebral nebulosity in most, reflecting on a person being both sane and insane at the same time, certainly caused cerebral nebulosity in the judge and jury. Jackson was acquitted on both charges and in doing so his mental state was transmuted to that of a sane person.
[Note: Suicide had been a criminal offence since the 13th century, inflicting penalties on the victim's family as a Felo de se. Much later victims of a suicide became regarded as Non compos mentis. Suicides and attempted suicide were decriminalised in 1961, but it is still an offence to assist someone in the act of committing suicide.]