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

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.

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.

Policing the Teen Brain

By Jeff Bostic, Lisa Thurau, Mona Potter, and Stacy Drury | February 2014 | Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry

More than 100 years after the creation of the juvenile court, state juvenile justice policies still promote adult approaches, despite consistent neurobiological evidence that the adolescent brain processes, perceives, and responds differently than adult brains. Although frequently the first responders in youth cases, police officers rarely receive adequate training in effective communication and interaction strategies with youth. Strategies for Youth found that most police academies contacted devote less than 1% of training to interactions with adolescents,1 yet 20% to 40% of juvenile arrests are for “contempt of cop” offenses, such as questioning or “disrespecting” an officer.2 Incarceration of adolescents fails to decrease recidivism and compounds the negative impacts on the 60% to 70%3 of youth in correctional facilities who have significant untreated mental health problems.4 We found that police officer training in neurodevelopmentally sensitive techniques markedly decreased teen arrests and improved police–teen interactions in diverse American communities. Continue reading »

Rewiring juvenile justice: the intersection of developmental neuroscience and legal policy

By Alexandra O. Cohen and BJ Casey | February 2014 | Trends in Cognitive Sciences

The past decade has been marked by historic opinions regarding the culpability of juveniles by the US Supreme Court. In 2005, the death penalty was abolished, 5 years later, life without parole for crimes, other than homicide, was banned, and then just last year, mandatory life sentences for any crime was abolished. The court referenced developmental science in all these cases. In this article, we highlight new scientific findings and their relevance to law and policy.

The past decade has witnessed a series of US Supreme Court decisions relevant to differential treatment of juvenile versus adult offenders that reference developmental science. In 2005 (Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551) the majority held that execution of offenders under the age of 18 violated the Eighth Amendment barring ‘cruel and unusual punishments’. That decision moved nearly 100 inmates off death row in a dozen states. In Graham v. Florida (2010), the Court held that juvenile offenders could not be sentenced to life in prison without parole for nonhomicide crimes. At that time, an estimated 100 inmates were serving Juvenile life without parole sentences for nonhomicide offenses. The 2000 or more inmates serving Juvenile life without parole for homicide were unaffected. Then, just last year (2012) in Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, the Supreme Court held that mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles violate the Eighth Amendment. The ruling only stated that a juvenile could not be subjected to a mandatory sentence of life without parole. Therefore, inconsistencies in the treatment of juveniles remain, because these laws are regulated predominantly by the state that allows jurisdictions to impose different penalties on juvenile offenders. Continue reading »

Protecting our Parents: Can Science Help?

High-profile schemes to defraud the elderly of their lifetime savings have headlined top newspapers and tabloids alike. There was Brooke Astor, whose son and attorney were convicted of criminal fraud, Anna Nicole Smith and the fight over J. Edgar Marshall’s inheritance, and Huguette Clark, a multi-billionaire who lived for years in a hospital and whose death prompted a criminal investigation into her donations and inheritance. Unfortunately, these notorious cases are merely the tip of a vast and growing iceberg of financial fraud against the elderly. In 2011, Metlife Mature Market Institute estimated an annual loss of $2.9 billion in fraud against elders. Recent surveys indicate that more than 7.3 million Americans over 65 have been victims of financial fraud. As crime rates — and vulnerable populations — increase, the scientific and legal communities must pool our ever-increasing knowledge and resources to protect elderly family members.

Read the full article on the Huffington Post, published February 21, 2014. By Bruce H. Price, MD and Ekaterina Pivovarova, PhD. Written with Judith G. Edersheim, JD, MD.

For further resources on elder fraud and decision making, see the reference materials from our December 2013 event Capacity, Decision-Making and the Elderly: Brain Science Meets the Law, and follow-up article in the Boston Globe “Scammers take aim at aging population,” by event moderator and Globe reporter Kay Lazar.