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

Justices Hear Florida Case on Measuring Inmates’ Mental Disabilities

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy raised questions about how much the court deferred to psychiatrists, psychologists and economists.WASHINGTON — A majority of the Supreme Court seemed skeptical on Monday of how Florida decides who is eligible to be spared the death penalty on account of intellectual disabilities. The state uses an I.Q. of 70 as a rigid cutoff, and several justices suggested that it should take account of a standard margin of error or consider additional factors.

Other justices seemed inclined to allow Florida and other states to decide for themselves how to determine who is “mentally retarded” and so ineligible for execution under the court’s 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia.

The Atkins decision gave states substantial discretion and only general guidance. It said a finding of intellectual disability requires proof of three things: “subaverage intellectual functioning,” meaning low I.Q. scores; a lack of fundamental social and practical skills; and the presence of both conditions before age 18. The court said I.Q. scores under “approximately 70” typically indicate intellectual disability.

As Monday’s argument progressed, it became clear that what divided the two groups of justices was more than the particular case. Their disagreement was a larger one about the role of scholarly and professional expertise in the resolution of legal disputes.

Read the full article, Justices Hear Florida Case on Measuring Inmates’ Mental Disabilities, in New York Times. By Adam Liptak, March 3, 2014. See more coverage of this issue in the article, With Death Penalty, How Should States Define Mental Disability?, on NPR. By Nina Totenburg, March 3, 2014.

Neuroscience Experts on the Stand

The use of neuroscience in the courtroom has a long and controversial history (Baskin, Edersheim, & Price, 2007). Some observers will recall introduction of computerized tomography (CT) scans to support a diagnosis of Schizophrenia at the John Hinckley Jr. trial for his attempted assassination of President Reagan (United States v. Hinckley, 1982). In subsequent years, much has changed in neuroscience and the law. Recent advances in technology and methods for collecting and analyzing imaging data, coupled with decreasing costs and greater availability of training, has resulted in an explosion of neuroscientific research (Rosen & Savoy, 2012). The ability to track fluctuating brain activity (i.e., functional data), as opposed to examining structural or anatomical images, has allowed for research in a wide-array of applied fields.

It is not surprising that techniques that could presumably measure thought patterns, identify lying, detect psychopathology, and assess for violence and impulsivity, incite interest in the legal community (Jones, Wagner, Faigman, & Raichle, 2013). The MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience has tracked peer-reviewed publications in the field of neurolaw (application of neurosciences to legal questions). Between 2003 and 2013, the total number of articles skyrocketed from less than 100 to more than 1,100 (Jones et al., 2013). A debate has ensued about the appropriate use of neuroscience research in the courtroom. Many researchers urge strong caution in applying this nascent field to complicated psycho-legal questions (Appelbaum, 2009; Rushing & Langleben, 2011). Continue reading »

Neuroscientists in Court

By Owen Jones, Anthony Wagner, David Faigman, and Marcus Raichle | Nature Reviews Neuroscience | September 12, 2013

Abstract:

Neuroscientific evidence is increasingly being offered in court cases. Consequently, the legal system needs neuroscientists to act as expert witnesses who can explain the limitations and interpretations of neuroscientific findings so that judges and jurors can make informed and appropriate inferences. The growing role of neuroscientists in court means that neuroscientists should be aware of important differences between the scientific and legal fields, and, especially, how scientific facts can be easily misunderstood by non-scientists, including judges and jurors.

This article describes similarities, as well as key differences, of legal and scientific cultures. And it explains six key principles about neuroscience that those in law need to know.

Read the full paper here.

The Brain on the Stand

Brandon Monroe for the New York Times

Brandon Monroe for the New York Times

I. Mr. Weinstein’s Cyst When historians of the future try to identify the moment that neuroscience began to transform the American legal system, they may point to a little-noticed case from the early 1990s. The case involved Herbert Weinstein, a 65-year-old ad executive who was charged with strangling his wife, Barbara, to death and then, in an effort to make the murder look like a suicide, throwing her body out the window of their 12th-floor apartment on East 72nd Street in Manhattan. Before the trial began, Weinstein’s lawyer suggested that his client should not be held responsible for his actions because of a mental defect — namely, an abnormal cyst nestled in his arachnoid membrane, which surrounds the brain like a spider web.

The implications of the claim were considerable. American law holds people criminally responsible unless they act under duress (with a gun pointed at the head, for example) or if they suffer from a serious defect in rationality — like not being able to tell right from wrong. But if you suffer from such a serious defect, the law generally doesn’t care why — whether it’s an unhappy childhood or an arachnoid cyst or both. To suggest that criminals could be excused because their brains made them do it seems to imply that anyone whose brain isn’t functioning properly could be absolved of responsibility. But should judges and juries really be in the business of defining the normal or properly working brain? And since all behavior is caused by our brains, wouldn’t this mean all behavior could potentially be excused?

Read the full article in the New York Times. By Jeffrey Rosen, CLBB Faculty member, commentator on US legal affairs, and President and CEO of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. Published March 11, 2007.