US v. Hendrickson: Sentencing the Addict’s Brain


Recently I’ve become a staff writer for Columbia University’s “Voices in Bioethics.” Here’s my debut article on US v. Hendrickson, a recent district court sentencing opinion that draws upon neuroscience. In it Judge Bennett cites the work of my boss, Dr. David Eagleman.

Originally posted on :

by Joshua Preston 

If there was any doubt whether bioethics scholarship was impacting the legal system, District Judge Mark W. Bennett’s recent sentencing opinion in US v. Hendrickson (2014) removed it. Referencing society’s evolving view of addiction and disease, he noted that “advances in science continue to outpace advances in law” and that even though addiction is no longer regarded as a moral failing but rather an illness:

the law still responds to drug abusers with punitive force, rather than preventative or therapeutic treatment. It is therefore unsurprising that, since 1980, the number of federal prisoners serving drug-related sentences has skyrocketed.

Mind DespairAlthough the medical community recognizes that addiction affects a victim’s judgment and behavior, Judge Bennett wrote that, within the legal community, there is no consensus whether courts should treat it as a mitigating circumstance. Instead, some judges insist it is mitigating only when it falls outside convention…

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The Sharknado of Social Systems

Today the Supreme Court ruled in Hobby Lobby that private corporations can exercise their religious freedom by denying women access to particular forms of birth control.

First, I’d like to begin with a few words on religious freedom and the regulation of business. The fundamental tension of government lies in balancing the desires of individuals with the needs of an organized, functioning society. These needs are the subject of discourse guided by conflicting visions of what enhances (and guarantees) individual liberty. Until now it has been clear that one’s religious freedom extends up until it threatens the rights and liberties of others (and this is the “Harm Principle”). No matter what you do or how you do it, you’re welcome to up until others’ rights are infringed. This is in the private sphere.

Now, when one enters the public sphere to conduct business, one must conform to those policies that arose from the discourse. This means getting all of the necessary permits, following the rules, and abiding by whatever worker and environmental regulations exist. It’s a process and everyone follows it — no one gets special treatment (in theory). It sets the supposedly-level playing field on which the marketplace stands.

What’s happened now is that the Supreme Court has ruled that a corporation’s religious beliefs (1) trump the harm caused to women by restricting their reproductive (and health) freedom, and (2) can cherry-pick those regulations meant to level the marketplace. The nice thing about religious freedom is that it was designed to allow beliefs to flourish and thrive – and where we’re headed: they’re really going to. If every man is a church; every man can pick the laws he’d like to follow. Never mind the democratic discourse. If you believe it (or believe you believe it), have fun.

As Justice Ginsburg wrote in her dissenting opinion:

Would the exemption … extend to employers with religiously grounded objections to blood transfusions (Jehovah’s Witnesses); antidepressants (Scientologists); medications derived from pigs, including anesthesia, intravenous fluids, and pills coated with gelatin (certain Muslims, Jews, and Hindus); and vaccinations[?]…Not much help there for the lower courts bound by today’s decision.

What if it’s against someone’s religious belief to have a minimum wage? What if their beliefs view some people — based on sexual orientation or race — as unclean? What if they believe “blessed are the peacemakers“? (That last one was a joke; nobody believes that).

What we’re seeing now is the marriage of two of the worst social systems born from the minds of men: Corporatism and Theocracy. We can tell ourselves It Can’t Happen Here, but it is. This is literally the Sharknado of Social Systems. It’s now only a matter of time before some company requires its female employees to take monthly, unpaid, seven-day sick leaves so as to properly observe Leviticus 15:19:

Whenever a woman has her menstrual period, she will be ceremonially unclean for seven days. If you touch her during that time, you will be defiled until evening.

After all, it’s what God would want.

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June 28, 1914: “Kills Heir to Throne of Austria”

Franz FerdinandToday, June 28, 2014, marks the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Murdered alongside his wife while traveling through the streets of Sarajevo, it was the catalyst for a series of unfolding events that, one month later, led to Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war on Serbia. Within one week, by August 5, 1914, Russia was marching west and Germany was at war with five countries, including France and Britain. As the fabric of Europe frayed, the United States maintained its neutrality.

Among historians there is consensus that the shots fired in Sarajevo were the first shots fired in every successive western conflict – the Armistice of the “Great War” set the stage for the spread of fascism, the Spanish Civil War, and World War II. That in turn led to the Cold War and its proxy conflicts within the Middle East and elsewhere. I say this only to highlight the fact that it was an event that set the twentieth century as we know it into motion. Well, this and imperialism.

Below I’m posting the article that appeared in Minnesota’s New Ulm Review on July 1, 1914. In what was supposed to be its Fourth of July issue, buried on the third page, readers from that German-American community heard the news for the first time. Titled, “Kills Heir to Throne,” it’s haunting to read and causes one to wonder: Today, when I open The New York Times or my local paper, which articles will historians look back on a century hence?


Sarajevo, June 29. – Archduke Francis Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his morganatic wife, the Duchess of Hohenberg, were assassinated while driving through the streets of Serajevo, the Bosnian capital. A youthful Servian student fired the shots which added another to the long list of tragedies that has darkened the reign of Emperor Francis Joseph.

The archduke and his wife were victims of the second attempt in the same day against their lives. First a bomb was thrown at the automobile in which they were driving to the town hall. Forewarned, however, of a possible attempt against his life the archduke was watchful and struck the missile aside with his arm. It fell under an automobile which carried members of his suite, wounding Count von Boos-Waldeck and Colonel Merizzo.

On their return from the town hall the archduke and the duchess were driving to the hospital when the Servian, Gavrio Prinzip, darted at the car and fired a volley at the occupants. His aim was true, for the archduke and his wife were mortally wounded. With them at the time was the governor of the city, who escaped injury. The bodies of his murdered companions collapsed across him and protected him from stray bullets.

The governor shouted to the chauffeur to rush to the palace at top speed. Physicians were in prompt attendance, but their services were useless, as the archduke and his wife were dead before the palace was reached.

The murders occurred with such rapidity that many persons near the scene did not even hear the shots. The street is very narrow and the assassin fired at close range.

Until the emperor’s wishes are known the bodies will lie in state at the palace here. They doubtless will be interred in the Hapsburg vaults in the Capuehin church in Vienna.

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Three Poems by William Reed Dunroy

Corn Tassels by William Reed DunroyGrowing up in southwestern Iowa, the poet William Reed Dunroy arrived in Omaha, NE, at the age of twenty. Shuffling between jobs, Dunroy soon enrolled in the University of Nebraska and then became a contributor to The Lincoln Courier. Though he spent only ten years in the state, Nebraska was the central focus of his three books of poetry. In fact, his Corn Tassels (1897) was dedicated “To the state I love, NEBRASKA, and to her people.”

Reviewed by a Chicago paper, Corn Tassels

… tells of prairies and sod houses and desolation and aspiration and other things which are mixed in with the life of the homesteader. But while youth impels the author to write pessimistically sometimes, a wholesome life and an honest heart cause him to see a great deal of good in his sandhill world (quoted in Shipers 196).

More than a century later, the scholar Dr. Carrie Shipers summarizes his work thus:

Dunroy’s use of rhyming iambic tetrameter and pentameter is frequently clumsy, and his musings on such themes as death, hope, and the comfort to be found in Christian faith can be cloyingly conventional (201).

Dr. Shipers is right, but what follows now are three poems from Corn Tassels that I found particularly interesting. Melancholic – melodramatic – hopefully you enjoy them, too.


The Rose in Her Hair

There’s a scarlet rose in my lady’s hair
And her gown in silken white,
On her cheek there’s a delicate rosy glow
Like the birth of a ruddy light.

There’s a pale white rose in my lady’s hair
And her gown is a leaden white,
Her cheeks are pale and her slender hands
Are clasped together tight.

There’s a phantom rose in my lady’s hair,
And her gown in misty white,
I see her no more in all the world,
Save in my dreams at night.


Life is but a tragic tale,
By countless players told,
Birth begins it, marriage next,
Then death — the play is old.

Laughter and joy to some,
To others, sorrow and shade,
Two dates carved on a stone,
And the play is played.

Dead Leaves

Whirl, dead leaves, whirl,
In your withered waltz of death,
Whirl to the dirging music piped
By Autumn’s sighing breath.

Whirl, dead leaves, whirl,
Dance with the ghostly breeze,
Over the bare brown earth,
Under the naked trees.

Whirl, dead leaves, whirl,
And drift in a dreary dance,
Like our own short lives
Blown here and there by chance.

Further Reading

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Kerouac in Minnesota (January 1949)


Writer Jack Kerouac (1922-1969)

[Pictured above: St. Paul, MN, c. 1900]

As part of my continuing research into the diary as a genre of literature, I came across the following from Windblown World: The Journals of Jack Kerouac, 1947-1954 (2006). This is excerpted from Kerouac’s “Rain and Rivers” notebook, which includes journal entries from 1949-1950, approximately when the events of On the Road occur. Based on the notebook’s chronology, the following appears to have been written in January 1949 as he passed through Minnesota on his way east.

[T]hen the trip across the flat, snowy, sunny Minnesota of farms and church steeples was of course uneventful, except for a road outside Moorhead that was obviously designed by a really malignant architect to jiggle one’s stomach out in regular, mathematically computed intervals. No mind.

And how dull it was to be in the East again … no more raw hopes: all was decided and satisfied here. I talked to a fine old man going into St. Cloud, however, who remembered 19th century Minnesota “when the Indians were out in Alexandria” (few miles west of Osakis Lakes.) Nothing wrong with Minnesota except the middleclass … which is ruining the entire nation anyway. At St. Cloud great Father Mississippi flowed in a deep rocky bed beneath Lowell-like bridges; and great clouds, as at the destination in New Orleans, hovered over this northern valley. I have only one objection to make to Minnesota, namely, it is not Montana. This is the objection of a man in love — with the western America. We drove to Anoka and then St. Paul.

Minneapolis 1940s

Minneapolis, MN, c. 1940s.

This famous river port still has the old 1870 brick along the waterfront … now the scene of great fruit and wholesale markets, just as in Kansas City near the downhill Missouri shore. St. Paul is smaller and older and more rickety than Minneapolis, but there is a depressing Pittsburgh-like sootiness about it … even in joyous snowy winter. Minneapolis is a sprawling dark city shooting off white communities across the montonous flats. The only soulful beauty here is rendered by the Mississippi and also by a hopeless hint of Mille Lacs and the Rainy River country to the North. The people are eastern (of course it’s called ‘middlewestern’) city people; and their corresponding look, talk & absorptions. Blame it on me; I hate almost everything. I would have liked to see Duluth merely because of Sinclair Lewis and Lake Superior.

These are my melancholy opinions [emphasis mine, p. 311-312].

There’s a chip on the shoulder of the Midwest, and it’s been around for as long as we’ve wanted to be New York City. From the moment our cities were founded on the drawing boards of the railroad and logging companies, we’ve lived with an eye longing east. We’ve wanted nothing more than to be a part of the nation (often read: New England, American South), and it’s only now we’ve learned there’s a much of the nation in us.

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Sons of Suicide…

Sons of Suicides seldom do well.

Characteristically, they find life lacking a certain ZING. They tend to feel more rootless than most, even in a notoriously rootless nation. They are squeamishly incurious about the past and numbly certain about the future to this grisly extent: they suspect that they, too, will probably kill themselves.

This is from Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless you, Mr. Rosewater (1965, p. 121), and as is often the case in his work he makes no effort to remove himself from the narrative. Drawing upon what would later be a subtle tone in Breakfast of Champions (1973), in his voice one catches the grief he experienced when, on Mother’s Day 1944, he learned about her suicide. There’s a line I particularly enjoy from Champions that channels these thoughts:

“This is a very bad book you’re writing,” I said to myself behind my leaks [sunglasses/mirrors].

“I know,” I said.

“You’re afraid you’ll kill yourself the way your mother did,” I said.

“I know,” I said. (p.193)

It’s these asides that I so admire in Vonnegut’s work. When I, as the reader, am pulled from the satirical, the ridiculous, into the sardonic, the personal, chills climb up my spine and I need to stop. It’s hard to go on as, behind his grin and in his laughter, so much else is revealed. The zany becomes serious and one wonders what the clowns were thinking the whole time they danced across the page.

Perhaps it’s appropriate I found this so close to father’s day.

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The Writers with a Foot in Two Centuries

The Woman and The Witch

For the last several months I’ve been writing a semi-autobiographical novel about growing up in rural Minnesota, running west to the Kerouac School, and back south to Houston. In particular, there’s a focus on the personalities who’ve crossed my path, but it’s also a meditation on the hometown. To quote the poet Bill Holm, it’s true that “We travel to get a better look at home,” but what I see from afar is the woman-witch illusion. The pictures flip back-and-forth, and though I’m grateful for much it’s hard going home – because what am I going back to?

There’s nothing I can say now that wouldn’t be a cliché.

This afternoon I’ve been editing a chapter that focuses on my middle school years and I hit a curious wall. It takes place when I’m fourteen years old (Spring 2005?) and as I’m discussing how I met “Kirsten Larson,” it dawns on me that some of the “natural” references I’m making will be entirely foreign to younger readership. I wrote, “We must have met through a mutual friend or on MSN Messenger …” and, pausing, I realized no one born after 1995 will know what that means. Now in order for what follows to make sense I need to flex my narration muscle and add, “Hey, kids, back in the distant, dark days of the Internet and cell phones – before social networks – we used this funny device ….”

It’s odd. As a generation with a foot in both worlds, our writers will have this moment where, at some point in the story, they must make the leap from the 20th and 21st centuries. The only alternative is a conspicuous silence about our teenage years – and where’s the fun in that?

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