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

Can a Brain Scan Uncover Your Morals?

By Kamala Kelker | The Guardian | January 17, 2016

It’s hard to imagine Steven Northington killing two people. The 43-year-old says he likes to make people laugh, “like a comedian”. He’s a loyal son to his troubled mother and father. He sends his younger sister birthday cards from prison and draws elaborate smiley faces on them. His defense team laughs with affection when they hear his name because he is, they say, “a character”.

Between 2003 and 2004, Northington was slinging for a drug ring that flooded his Philadelphia neighborhood with bloodshed. The Kaboni Savage Organization was responsible for nine murders during those two years alone, including the firebombing of a house that killed two women and four children.

The government was after them, and they knew it: seven of the nine victims were murdered in retaliation against witnesses who had agreed to cooperate with prosecutors to bring the kingpin down, according to the FBI.

It wasn’t until 2013 that the federal court started its trial against ringleader Kaboni Savage, as well as his sister Kidada Savage, accomplice Robert Merritt, and Northington. The four were tried together for a total of 12 murders dating back to 1998.

Northington stood apart because he was arrested a month before the firebombing, and only charged for two of the murders – those of Barry Parker, a corner competitor of the ring, and Tybius Flowers, a childhood friend. In Flowers’s case, the execution happened hours before he was supposed to take the stand as the star witness against Savage in a 1998 murder case.

Northington was convicted by the state court in Philadelphia in 2007 for the murder of Parker. In 2013, the federal trial combined the two murders and found Northington guilty of aiding both.

And since the murders were an attempt to intimidate witnesses and in support of racketeering, federal prosecutors wanted him dead.

They asked for the death penalty.

•••

Days before he was sentenced, one of Northington’s lawyers, William Bowe, showed the jurors something they never saw during the six-month trial: images of Northington’s brain. He told them that Northington was developmentally stunted by homelessness, abuse and prenatal exposure to drugs and alcohol.

Bowe said the deficiencies the scans revealed provided some explanation for Northington’s actions – not an excuse, but an extenuating set of circumstances.

“What does that mean? It means that Steven Northington doesn’t think like you and me. It means his brain doesn’t function like ours. It means when he makes a decision, he doesn’t do it like you or me. It’s broken,” he told the jury.

Brain images are becoming standard evidence in some of the country’s most controversial and disturbing death penalty cases. In March, Barack Obama’s bioethics commission released a report stating that neuroscience is used in about a quarter of capital cases, and that percentage is rising quickly.

Lawyers use scans in a few principal ways. Sometimes it’s to explain a psychiatrist’s diagnosis to help a plea of insanity, or to help prove intellectual disability. Most often they are used to ask juries for mercy during the sentencing phase of the grimmest trials.

Since the inner workings of a criminal’s mind are central to a case, any tool that might shed light on the 3-lb organ is worth considering. And brain scans have diagnostic credibility: they are fundamental in clinical settings for spotting tumors, cancer or traumatic injuries. They have been used to study aspects of behavior, such as decision-making, depression and impulse control. But in death penalty cases, the images are taken out of that medical or experimental context, and used to clarify nuances of criminal actions.

It remains unclear whether pictures of neural processes or of brain anatomy can reveal a person’s morals or the substance of their character. But despite incomplete science, brain scans are becoming crucial arbiters of life and death.

Continue reading the full article here.

This article was originally published by The Guardian.

Researcher says convicted murderer predisposed to violence

By Mitch Mitchell | The Fort Worth Star-Telegram | May 15, 2014

Cedric Allen Ricks

Cedric Allen Ricks

FORT WORTH, TEXAS — Convicted murderer Cedric Allen Ricks has brain biology that predisposes him to violent behavior, a researcher said at his capital murder trial on Thursday.

Jeffrey Lewine, a neuroscience researcher for the Mind Research Network, a group of scientists who study mental illness, found that Ricks’ biochemical makeup tilts him toward violent responses. Lewine testified that he used several different imaging techniques to study Ricks’ brain.

This is the first time this type of testimony has been used in a criminal case in Texas, Lewine said.

Last week, a jury convicted Cedric Ricks of fatally stabbing his estranged girlfriend, Roxann Sanchez, 30, and her 8-year-old child, Anthony Figueroa. Ricks repeatedly stabbed Sanchez and her son, and then repeatedly stabbed the woman’s older son, 12-year-old Marcus Figueroa.

Marcus Figueroa barely escaped dying by mimicking the last breaths of his younger brother. Prosecutors Bob Gill and Robert Huseman are seeking the death penalty for Ricks.

“We tried everything we could to help him,” Helen Ricks, his mother, testified Thursday. “We tried whipping him, we went to counselors, we did what we could. We never thought we would be in a position like this, where he would be tried for murder.”

Images of Ricks’ brain showed he had one area, the putamen, that was larger than that area in the brains of control subjects, Lewine said. Larger putamens are associated with increased aggression, Lewine said. Ricks also scored high on a psychological exam that rates tendencies toward aggression and violent behavior and low on a test that rates emotional intelligence, Lewine said.

“Ricks ability to form and maintain long-term emotional relationships and read facial cues is impaired,” Lewine said.

Whatever method researchers used to look at Ricks’ brain the findings were the same, Lewine said. Ricks’ biology shows he leans toward violent behavior and biology is difficult to alter, he said.

“Across these tests we begin to see an emerging picture of someone who is biologically predisposed toward increased aggression and violent behavior,” Lewine said.

Testimony is expected to continue Friday in state District Judge Mollee Westfall’s court.

Read the full article here.