News and Commentary Archive

Explore recent scientific discoveries and news as well as CLBB events, commentary, and press.

Mission

The speed of technology in neuroscience as it impacts ethical and just decisions in the legal system needs to be understood by lawyers, judges, public policy makers, and the general public. The Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Law, Brain, and Behavior is an academic and professional resource for the education, research, and understanding of neuroscience and the law. Read more

Did the Man I Sentenced to 18 Years Deserve It?

By Stefan R. Underhill | The New York Times | January 23, 2016

In 2006, I sentenced a man to 18 years in prison. I have been wrestling with that decision ever since.

As a federal district judge, I’ve sentenced hundreds of people, but I’ve rarely agonized as much as I did over this man’s fate. Continue reading »

Social Cognition Over Time in Individuals at Clinical High Risk for Psychosis: Findings from the NAPLS-2 Cohort

By Danijela Piskulic, Lu Liu, Kristin S. Cadenhead, Tyrone D. Cannon, Barbara A. Cornblatt, Thomas H. McGlashan, Diana O. Perkins, Larry J. Seidman, Ming T. Tsuang, Elaine F. Walker, Scott W. Woods, Carrie E. Bearden, Daniel H. Mathalon, and Jean Addington | Schizophrenia Research | January 16, 2016

Abstract:

Deficits in social cognition are well established in schizophrenia and have been observed prior to the illness onset. Compared to healthy controls (HCs), individuals at clinical high risk of psychosis (CHR) are said to show deficits in social cognition similar to those observed in patients experiencing a first episode of psychosis. These deficits have been observed in several domains of social cognition, such as theory of mind (ToM), emotion perception and social perception. In the current study, the stability of three domains of social cognition (ToM, social perception and facial emotion perception) was assessed over time along and their association with both clinical symptoms and the later development of psychosis. Six hundred and seventy-five CHR individuals and 264 HC participants completed four tests of social cognition at baseline. Of those, 160 CHR and 155 HC participants completed assessments at all three time points (baseline, 1 year and 2 years) as part of their participation in the North American Prodrome Longitudinal Study. The CHR group performed poorer on all tests of social cognition across all time points compared to HCs. Social cognition was not associated with attenuated positive symptoms at any time point in the study. CHR individuals who developed a psychotic disorder during the course of the study did not differ in social cognition compared to those who did not develop psychosis. This longitudinal study demonstrated mild to moderate, but persistent ToM and social perception impairments in those at CHR for psychosis compared to HCs.

Read the full article here.

Neuroscience and Behavioral Genetics in US Criminal Law: An Empirical Analysis

By Nita Farahany | Journal of Law and the Biosciences | January 14, 2016

Abstract:

The goal of this study was to examine the growing use of neurological and behavioral genetic evidence by criminal defendants in US criminal law. Judicial opinions issued between 2005–12 that discussed the use of neuroscience or behavioral genetics by criminal defendants were identified, coded and analysed. Yet, criminal defendants are increasingly introducing such evidence to challenge defendants’ competency, the effectiveness of defense counsel at trial, and to mitigate punishment.

Read the entire paper here.

Justices Expand Parole Rights for Juveniles Sentenced to Life for Murder

Over the past decade, the Supreme Court has issued a series of landmark decisions around the criminal culpability of adolescents, drawing from neuroscience research. In 2005, the Court abolished the juvenile death penalty. In 2010, the Court banned life without parole for juveniles convicted of crimes other than homicide. And in 2012, the Court prohibited states from mandating life without parole for any crimes committed by minors. On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that its 2012 decision must be applied retroactively, impacting over 2,000 people currently serving life sentences.

By Adam Liptak | The New York Times | January 25, 2016

The Supreme Court on Monday ruled that its 2012 decision banning mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juvenile killers must be applied retroactively, granting a new chance at release for hundreds of inmates serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for murders they committed in their youth.

The vote was 6 to 3, and the majority decision was written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, the court’s leading proponent of cutting back on the death penalty and other harsh punishments for entire classes of offenders. His opinion strengthened the 2012 decision, which merely required new sentencing where life without parole had been imposed automatically, without taking into account the defendant’s youth.

Monday’s opinion indicated that life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders should be exceedingly rare. Justice Kennedy also gave states a second option — instead of resentencing the affected prisoners, they could make them eligible for parole. Continue reading »

Growing Use of Neurobiological Evidence in Criminal Trials

Duke University Professor of Law & Philosophy, Nita Farahany, recently published an empirical review of the growing use of neuroscience and behavioral genetics in the courtroom. This article reviews the findings and discusses the overall impact of the use of these new scientific techniques in the legal arena.

By Emily Underwood | Science | January 21, 2016

In 2008, in El Cajon, California, 30-year-old John Nicholas Gunther bludgeoned his mother to death with a metal pipe, and then stole $1378 in cash, her credit cards, a DVD/VCR player, and some prescription painkillers. At trial, Gunther admitted to the killing, but argued that his conviction should be reduced to second-degree murder because he had not acted with premeditation. A clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist testified that two previous head traumas—one the result of an assault, the other from a drug overdose—had damaged his brain’s frontal lobes, potentially reducing Gunther’s ability to plan the murder, and causing him to act impulsively. The jury didn’t buy Gunther’s defense, however; based on other evidence, such as the fact that Gunther had previously talked about killing his mother with friends, the court concluded that he was guilty of first-degree murder, and gave him a 25-years-to-life prison sentence.

Gunther’s case represents a growing trend, a new analysis suggests. Between 2005 and 2012, more than 1585 U.S. published judicial opinions describe the use of neurobiological evidence by criminal defendants to shore up their defense, according to a study published last week in the Journal of Law and the Biosciences by legal scholar Nita Farahany of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and colleagues. In 2012 alone, for example, more than 250 opinions cited defendants’ arguments that their “brains made them do it”—more than double the number of similar claims made in 2007.  Continue reading »