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

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 »

Chism Defense to Focus on Juvenile Brain Development as Prosecution Rests

By Rupa Shenoy | WGBH | December 1, 2015

The murder trial of 16-year-old Philip Chism case is playing out as the state and country dramatically changes the way it adjudicates juvenile crime. For the defense team, that means there are very specific things to prove as the jury decides whether Chism is or is not guilty by reason of insanity.

Prosecutors for the Commonwealth rested their case Monday against Chism, who is charged with first-degree murder with atrocity and cruelty. Chism, of Danvers, is charged as an adult in the death of his math teacher, Colleen Ritzer. Continue reading »

Alabama Baby’s Death Raises Questions About Child’s Criminal Responsibility

In the case of the death of one-year-old Kelci Lewis, an eight-year-old boy is being charged with murder. No adults were present, and the case hinges on the account of six-year-old who was also in eight-year-old’s care that night. Alabama is one of 30 states with no minimum age for criminal responsibility. 

By Amanda Holpuch | The Guardian | November 15, 2015

The neat green trim on the Birmingham home matched the color of the bountiful trees hanging over its roof. There were stones plastered across the front of the residence so that children inside could imagine that they lived in a castle. A neighbor said that the sloped yard served as terrain for children to slide down on pieces of cardboard – “typical kids”, he said.

In one of the most dangerous big cities in the country, Second Avenue South is a relatively safe place during the day. But at night, a neighbor warned, “the goblins come out”.

He himself was newly out of prison and warned of neighborhood cliques who prowl the Alabama neighborhood when it is dark to defend their territory. But one night last month, the night-time horror was of a different nature and the placid-looking, green-trimmed house was the crime scene. Continue reading »

Elder Abuse

This comprehensive review article published by The New England Journal of Medicine highlights the scope and management of elder abuse, drawing from research and clinical evidence. Perhaps most strikingly, they estimate that the prevalence of elder abuse (physical, psychological, verbal, and sexual abuse, financial exploitation, and neglect) is around 10%.

By Mark S. Lachs and Karl A. Pillemer | The New England Journal of Medicine | November 12, 2015

Although it has probably existed since antiquity, elder abuse was first described in the medical literature in the 1970s.1 Many initial attempts to define the clinical spectrum of the phenomenon and to formulate effective intervention strategies were limited by their anecdotal nature or were epidemiologically flawed. The past decade, however, has seen improvements in the quality of research on elder abuse that should be of interest to clinicians who care for older adults and their families. Financial exploitation of older adults, which was explored only minimally in the initial studies, has recently been identified as a virtual epidemic and as a problem that may be detected or suspected by an alert physician.

In the field of long-term care, studies have uncovered high rates of interpersonal violence and aggression toward older adults; in particular, abuse of older residents by other residents in long-term care facilities is now recognized as a problem that is more common than physical abuse by staff.2,3 The use of interdisciplinary or interprofessional teams, also referred to as multidisciplinary teams in the context of elder abuse, has emerged as one of the intervention strategies to address the complex and multidimensional needs and problems of victims of elder abuse, and such teams are an important resource for physicians.4,5 These new developments suggest an expanded role for physicians in assessing and treating victims of elder abuse and in referring them for further care.

In this review, we summarize research and clinical evidence on the extent, assessment, and management of elder abuse, derived from our analysis of high-quality studies and recent systematic studies and reviews of the literature on elder abuse.6-10

DEFINITIONS AND ESTIMATES OF PREVALENCE

Debates about how to define elder abuse and which types of behavior to include in the definition greatly inhibited progress during the early period of research on this topic. Initial formulations were overly broad and included types of behavior that are not typically part of definitions of domestic abuse, such as crime by strangers, age discrimination, and failure to care for oneself (referred to as “self-neglect”). Over the past decade, however, consensus has arisen about the inclusion of five major types of elder abuse11-13: physical abuse, or acts carried out with the intention to cause physical pain or injury; psychological or verbal abuse, defined as acts carried out with the aim of causing emotional pain or injury; sexual abuse, defined as nonconsensual sexual contact of any kind; financial exploitation, involving the misappropriation of an older person’s money or property; and neglect, or the failure of a designated caregiver to meet the needs of a dependent older person (Table 1).

When these types of abuse have been considered together, epidemiologic surveys have shown generally similar prevalences of elder abuse over a period of 12 months, as indicated by three high-quality epidemiologic studies of community-dwelling older people (60 years of age or older). In a survey of more than 4000 older people in New York State, the rate of elder abuse was found to be 7.6%16,17; in a national survey by Laumann et al., the rate was 9%,12 and in a national telephone survey by Acierno et al.,18 the rate was 10%. It is likely that these figures are underestimates; the reliance on self-reported information from persons who are able to participate in a survey excludes patients with dementia, and studies have shown that dementia places older persons at greater risk for mistreatment.19 When the available evidence is taken into consideration, an estimated overall prevalence of elder abuse of approximately 10% appears reasonable. Thus, a busy physician caring for older adults will encounter a victim of such abuse on a frequent basis, regardless of whether the physician recognizes the abuse.

Continue reading the full journal article here.

When School Feels Like Jail

The Marshall Project’s Eli Hager reports on the growing use of “alternative schools” — isolated classrooms, where students are often met with corporal punishment and humiliating treatment — as a way to lower suspension rates among rural schools in the South.

By Eli Hager | The Marshall Project | November 11, 2015

Rockmon Montrell “Rock” Allen, an 18-year-old from Jackson, Mississippi, has never gone to jail. But school, he says, was close enough. At Ridgeland High School, a large public school in an increasingly black suburb of Jackson, he was punished repeatedly for what seemed like minor reasons.

In the ninth grade, when he wore the wrong-color uniform or didn’t tuck in his shirt, Rock got “whooped,” as he puts it. That meant bending over, putting his hands on a desk, and getting hit three to five times on the backside with a flat wooden paddle. Mississippi is one of only four states—the others are Alabama, Georgia, and Texas—where school districts frequently use corporal punishment on students (although 19 states allow the practice by law). Teachers and administrators openly use paddles—and, in rarer cases, belts, rulers, and key chains—to whip kids into order. Continue reading »