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

The Law’s Emotion Problem

Part of the ongoing coverage of Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett’s new book, How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain.

By Lisa Feldman Barrett | The New York Times | March 11, 2017

In the 1992 Supreme Court case Riggins v. Nevada, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy acknowledged — perhaps unwittingly — that our legal system relies on a particular theory of the emotions. The court had ruled that a criminal defendant could not forcibly be medicated to stand trial, and Justice Kennedy concurred, stressing that medication might impair a defendant’s ability to exhibit his feelings. This, he warned, would interfere with the critical task, during the sentencing phase, of trying to “know the heart and mind of the offender,” including “his contrition or its absence.”

But can a judge or jurors infer a defendant’s emotions reliably, as Justice Kennedy implied? Is it possible, as this theory holds, to detect remorse — or any other emotion — just by looking and listening? Continue reading »

WATCH — Fetal Pain: An Update on the Science and Legal Implications

Click to enlarge event poster.

Click to enlarge event poster.

On Wednesday, February 10, Amanda Pustilnik, JD and Maureen Strafford MD will discuss fetal pain, including advances in neuroscience and treatment and their implications for the law.

The event will be held at 12:00 pm on Wednesday, February 10, in Wasserstein Hall, Milstein East C (2036) at Harvard Law School (1585 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA).

This event is free and open to the public. Lunch will be served.

Continue reading »

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.

Neuroscience and Behavioral Genetics in US Criminal Law: An Empirical Analysis

By Nita Farahany | Journal of Law and the Biosciences | January 14, 2016

Abstract:

The goal of this study was to examine the growing use of neurological and behavioral genetic evidence by criminal defendants in US criminal law. Judicial opinions issued between 2005–12 that discussed the use of neuroscience or behavioral genetics by criminal defendants were identified, coded and analysed. Yet, criminal defendants are increasingly introducing such evidence to challenge defendants’ competency, the effectiveness of defense counsel at trial, and to mitigate punishment.

Read the entire paper here.

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 »