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.

The Most Ambitious Effort Yet To Abolish The Death Penalty Is Already Happening

By Chris Geidner | BuzzFeed News | November 8, 2015

Henderson Hill and Rob Smith are the odd couple shepherding a collaborative effort to end the death penalty in America at the most significant moment for that movement in decades.

As talk of mass incarceration, racial disparities, and criminal justice legislation has permeated the public debate on both sides of the political spectrum, another effort has taken shape under the radar: the laying of the groundwork for a Supreme Court ruling that the death penalty is unconstitutional, a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishments.

When Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, along with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, raised the prospect this June of the Supreme Court revisiting the constitutionality of the death penalty — using a key part of Smith’s work as evidence — the ground shifted overnight, and discussions went from hypothetical to hyperdrive. Continue reading »

Death Row Prisoners Have Plenty of Time to Find God, But Few Find Mercy

By Daniel LaChance | The New Republic | November 3, 2015

Strapped to the execution gurney in Huntsville, Texas, Michael Hall told those assembled to watch him die that he was not the same man who had shot a 19-year-old woman to death 13 years earlier.

“The old is gone,” he said. “That person is dead.”

Stories of condemned inmates who find God and goodness while they await execution are nothing new. But in recent decades, they have become a lot more plausible. A century ago, the condemned counted their time on death row in months. Now they count it in years—and sometimes decades. Those executed in 2011, the year Hall was put to death, had spent an average of 16.5 years on death row.

As a historian of the modern American death penalty, I have argued that the extraordinary amount of time that now elapses between sentencing and execution has changed the public’s perception of capital punishment. It has also changed the condemned. Continue reading »

Courts, States Put Death Penalty on Life Support

By Richard Wolf and Kevin Johnson | USA Today | September 14, 2015

Introduction

‘EVERYWHERE YOU LOOK…THERE’S A PROBLEM’

If there is such a thing as a lock for the death penalty, the case against Daniel Higgins appeared to be just that.

Already sought for sexually assaulting a child, Higgins killed Sheriff’s Sgt. Michael Naylorlast October with a point-blank shot to the head, making him the only deputy slain in the department’s 130-year history. “I wanted him dead,” Sheriff Gary Painter says of the murderer.

But Naylor’s widow, Denise Davis, said she couldn’t bear the likely rounds of appeals that could stretch on for decades. Higgins was allowed to plead guilty and was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

The death penalty in America may be living on borrowed time. Continue reading »

Amanda Pustilnik Weighs in on “Corrective Brain Implants” for Criminals

CLBB Faculty and Senior Fellow in Law & Applied Neuroscience Amanda Pustilnik was sought out for her expert opinion on whether corrective brain implants could make the death penalty obsolete, in response to a recent article. In her words, “The story is speculative and interesting, but it gets a bunch of things wrong.”

Criminals are not neurologically different than the rest of us—they are a product of environment and opportunity…. the average criminal smoked a little weed, or stole a car, or shoplifted, or never had good behavioral modeling at home so they punched someone in the face. Most people don’t need brain implants. They are not them—they are us.

There’s such a sexiness around neuroscience, and I love it, but that sometimes deflects us from easier, cheaper, more effective things we could do more efficiently, both now or in the future.

Read the rest of piece from Popular Science, “Could we give Criminals Corrective Brain Implants?“, by Alexandra Ossola, published July 24, 2015.