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 »

Amanda Pustilnik to Help Develop Standards for Legal Uses of Brain Imaging

The International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) has convened a pioneering working group to develop international standards for the legal uses of brain imaging, a group that will include CLBB Faculty Member and former Fellow in Law & Applied Neuroscience, Amanda Pustilnik. This will be the first body to set international standards for legal and policy uses of brain imaging, advancing law, policy, and human outcomes in the pain area. Additionally, it will provide a model for how to set standards in all areas where law may turn to brain imaging relating to the brain’s production of sensation, affect, and behavior. This initiative was in part prompted by the ideas raised at CLBB’s recent conference,  “Visible Solutions: How Neuroimaging Helps Law Re-envision Pain”.

Congratulations to Amanda Pustilnik for being part of this trailblazing effort!

Courage of Conviction

By Virginia Gewin | Nature | October 15, 2015

In October 2006, Bradley Waldroup attacked his estranged wife with a machete and shot her friend to death. In the subsequent trial, his defence attorney argued that Waldroup had the ‘warrior’ gene — a genetic variant that has been linked to aggression. As a result, the defence argued, he was less able to control his behaviour than are people who do not have the variant.

Although he had been charged with first-degree murder of the friend and attempted first-degree murder of his wife, Waldroup was convicted in 2011 of voluntary manslaughter and attempted second-degree murder, and received a 32-year sentence. Had he been found guilty of the more-serious charges, he would have faced the death penalty. Waldroup’s conviction was due, at least in part, to the testimony of forensic psychiatrist William Bernet of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. News stories at the time quoted jurors as saying that the genetic evidence persuaded them that Waldroup could not fully control his actions. Bernet’s research had linked the genetic variant and a history of abuse during childhood—both of which Waldroup had—to an increased likelihood of violent behaviour.

The outcome outraged many in the US legal and scientific communities, who considered the genetic link much too distant to be used to establish guilt. “The leap from population studies of the ‘warrior gene’ to a single man and a single gene variant was absurd,” says Judith Edersheim, a lawyer-turned-psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts. And the trial is not the only example of what she describes as “neuroscience run amok in the courtroom”. Continue reading »

Judith Edersheim Answers: Can Neuroscience Ever Have a Place in the Courtroom?

CLBB Co-Director Dr. Judith Edersheim shared her expert knowledge with Dylan Goldstein of Brain Decoder on the role of neuroscience in the courtroom. She notes:

There is an indisputable core of cases in which neuroscience by all accounts should be in the courtroom. Cases where you have a lesion or defect and you can make a very certain causal link to the behavior at issue.

At the same time, she highlights the limitations of relying solely on neuroscience in legal cases:

Scholars have been trying to crack this issue for a long time, and the problem is taking group data and applying it to an individual. If you have a range of behaviors and a range of deficits in a group, we still can’t reliably place one individual along the continuum.

Our links between brain and behavior are not always solid enough to prove causation…. If you’re going to assert causation with a lesion, you have to say that this lesion is responsible for the behavior in a fairly clear way, and that no other brain regions are helping or compensating. In an organism with tremendous variation, it’s not always easy to say.

Read the rest of the piece from Brain Decoder, “Can Neuroscience Ever Have a Place in the Courtroom?”, by Dylan Goldstein, published August 12, 2015.

Neuroscience in Court: The Painful Truth

By Sara Reardon | Nature | 25 February 2015

This article features Amanda Pustilnik, the 2014-2015 Senior Fellow in Law & Applied Neuroscience at CLBB and The Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School. Pustilnik’s involvement in the CLBB Pain & Suffering Working Group and their recent Symposium is cited. Nature also published an editorial on pain imaging in the same issue.

Annie is lying down when she answers the phone; she is trying to recover from a rare trip out of the house. Moving around for an extended period leaves the 56-year-old exhausted and with excruciating pain shooting up her back to her shoulders. “It’s really awful,” she says. “You never get comfortable.”

In 2011, Annie, whose name has been changed at the request of her lawyer, slipped and fell on a wet floor in a restaurant, injuring her back and head. The pain has never eased, and forced her to leave her job in retail.

Annie sued the restaurant, which has denied liability, for several hundred thousand dollars to cover medical bills and lost income. To bolster her case that she is in pain and not just malingering, Annie’s lawyer suggested that she enlist the services of Millennium Magnetic Technologies (MMT), a Connecticut-based neuroimaging company that has a centre in Birmingham, Alabama, where Annie lives. MMT says that it can detect pain’s signature using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which measures and maps blood flow in the brain as a proxy for neural activity. Continue reading »