News and Commentary Archive

Explore recent scientific discoveries and news as well as CLBB events, commentary, and press.


The Center for Law, Brain & Behavior puts the most accurate and actionable neuroscience in the hands of judges, lawyers, policymakers and journalists—people who shape the standards and practices of our legal system and affect its impact on people’s lives. We work to make the legal system more effective and more just for all those affected by the law.

Criminal Justice Reform in the Age of Covid 19

CLBB Co-Founder and Co-Director Dr. Judith Edersheim, MD, JD participated in a panel discussion on July 22, 2020, exploring Criminal Justice Reform in the Age of Covid 19

On Tuesday, Dr. Edersheim was one of three distinguished panelists involved in the webinar held by the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center’s Hollywood, Health and Society program. Alongside Executive Producer Hank Steinberg and Civil Rights Activist Deray McKesson, Dr. Edersheim discussed the role of television and media in the movement for criminal justice reform and how media can support a more humane criminal justice system.

Developmental Neuroscience and Justice: Can a 19-year-old be Sentenced to Life without Parole?

CLBB student research intern Ian Hayes reports below on recent advancements in Emerging Adult Justice

An Illinois Appellate Court Decision that considers the implications of Miller v. Alabama and Developmental Neuroscience for Emerging Adults

On May 26, 2020 the Illinois First District Appellate Court (Cook County) issued an opinion allowing Omar Johnson and Israel Ruiz (in a separate decision) to move forward with post-conviction proceedings asking the court to determine if recent advances in developmental neuroscience should apply to those who commit crimes as emerging adults. The appellate court held:

“Johnson and Ruiz have made prima facie showings in their pleadings that evolving understandings of the brain psychology of adolescents require Miller to apply to them. Their petitions and their counsel on appeal urge that we account for the emerging consensus that the development of the young brain continues well beyond 18 years, the arbitrarily demarcated admittance to adulthood for those arrested and entering our criminal law system.”

The appellants, 19 and 18 years old at the times of their homicide offenses  (and other violent crimes), will now have an opportunity to further develop the record in an effort to show that the Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama (2012) (prohibiting mandatory life sentences for minors) should apply to their respective sentencings as emerging adults. Johnson had been sentenced by the trial court to a discretionary life sentence for murder in addition to concurrent 60-year sentences for armed robbery, aggravated kidnapping, and aggravated vehicular hijacking.

Although Johnson and Ruiz can move forward, they face an uphill battle. In People v. Harris (2018), the Illinois Supreme Court rejected the argument that Miller should apply to young adults. The Illinois Supreme Court noted that “The Supreme Court has never extended its reasoning to young adults age 18 or over. Rather, the Supreme Court defined juveniles as individuals under the age of 18.” Moreover, it was noted that “the line drawn by the Supreme Court at age 18 was not based primarily on scientific research” and thus “[n]ew research findings do not necessarily alter that traditional line between adults and juveniles.”

A more promising legal avenue, left open by the Harris opinion, is to make a similar claim under the proportionate penalties clause of the Illinois Constitution.

In the present cases, by the allowing Johnson and Ruiz leave to file a successive post-conviction petition, the lower court will explore the applicability of the Illinois proportionate penalties clause.

The court in Johnson relied on a similar 2019 case, People v. House, in which an Illinois appellate court found that a mandatory life sentence for a 19 year-old at the time of the offense is in violation of the Illinois Constitution. In House, the court ordered a new sentencing hearing to allow both the State and the defendant to “fully explore” the science of juvenile brain development. The court in Johnson found House to be “well-reasoned” and followed a similar line of reasoning, refusing to distinguish between mandatory and discretionary life sentences for this matter. In support of his petition for appeal, Johnson submitted an affidavit detailing an abusive family history, difficulty grappling with his racial identity, pressure from older figures, and other personal contributing factors that led to his involvement in criminal activity at a young age. Johnson additionally attached several articles on brain development not being complete until the age of 25, noted other jurisdictions outside of the US that extend the juvenile system until age 21, and also included an article noting increases in criminal activity in Illinois during adolescence that then declines in the early 20s. The court stated:

“We find Johnson’s claim that developing brain science may apply to his specific circumstances to be sufficiently supported by the materials attached to his petition—at least, sufficiently supported to warrant further proceedings.”

As noted in the Johnson opinion, cases at the cusp of juvenile and emerging adult justice often deal with those accused and subsequently convicted of the most heinous crimes. As the court put it, the decision “should not be read to minimize or excuse the suffering wrought by the taking of another life”. Omar Johnson was convicted in 1999 for a murder in which he and a friend abducted, robbed and executed Dorothy Jewula, their former boss. Nonetheless, the Illinois constitution and relevant statutes provide protection to all individuals, regardless of the nature of their crimes.

The emerging body of science on juvenile and emerging adult brain development, in conjunction with social science research demonstrating the disproportionate representation of racial minorities serving life sentences should give the courts and legislators alike pause. Given current U.S. Supreme Court precedent, Johnson, Ruiz and similarly situated defendants face significant legal challenges in pleading their claims under Miller in future post-conviction proceedings. Though they may not ultimately prevail in further proceedings, the court’s opinionsin Johnson and Ruiz are encouraging. Courts across the country in the wake of Miller will continue to explore whether the findings of the emerging body of developmental neuroscience requires the courts to reimagine the constitutional protections of emerging adults. The resolution of such a question will continue to have profound effects for some of the most vulnerable in our justice system.

CLBB Provides Neuroscience Expertise for Supreme Court Amicus Brief

JULY 2, 2020 – In six days, Billy Joe Wardlow is scheduled to be executed for a crime he committed at age 18. Wardlow’s defense team is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to stay the execution. CLBB’s neuroscience faculty provided the most up to date adolescent and emerging adult neuroscience data to supplement an amicus brief in this case, and CLBB was honored to be a signatory to the amicus brief as a whole. See below for details of this compelling case, and a description of the relevant neuroscience.

Should Billy Joe Wardlow be Executed for a Crime Committed When He Was Eighteen? Lincoln Caplan | The New Yorker | June 30, 2020

Background: Billy Joe Wardlow “was 18 years, 6 months, and 19 days old on June 14, 1993, the morning he and his girlfriend, Tonya Fulfer, set out to steal Carl Cole’s Chevy Silverado. In their minds the theft would be the first step toward a new life, one far from the parents who had hurt them and the poverty they’d known in rural Northeast Texas. The idea was to drive the pickup to Montana, change their identities, and begin life anew. The plan’s magical thinking revealed itself as Wardlow stood on Cole’s front porch at dawn. Wardlow asked to borrow a phone. Cole handed one through the door. As Wardlow pretended to make a call, Cole tried to shut the door. Wardlow brought out the .45 he’d stolen from his mother hours before. To Wardlow’s surprise, the 82-year-old Cole charged him, grabbed his arm, and began to push the much-larger Wardlow backwards off the porch. As Cole’s fingers grabbed for control of the gun Wardlow shot. Cole fell dead. Wardlow and Fulfer were arrested two days later, having made it as far as South Dakota.” (source: Austin Chronicle)   

Highlight from The New Yorker essay: “With Wardlow’s execution scheduled for July 8th, the Supreme Court must rule before then on his request for a stay, perhaps this week. He wrote … in May: “I want to cause no more harm. I want to erase the pain I’ve inflicted on others. I want to be someone those I respect would be proud of. I want to be useful to those I love. I want to be someone others look up to and respect . . .I want to wipe away the taint of my past.'”

Amicus Brief to the U.S. Supreme Court
An amicus brief was submitted to the Supreme Court on behalf of professional organizations, practitioners, and academics in the fields of neuroscience, neuropsychology, and other related fields. Our neuroscience faculty at CLBB provided the most up-to-date adolescent and emerging adult neuroscience data to supplement the amicus brief.   Neuroscience in Action: “In light of what science has now shown about the developing brain, there is a broad consensus in the neuropsychological community that it is impossible to determine whether an 18-year-old-even one that has committed an act of deadly violence-is likely to commit acts of violence as a mature adult.     …in early adolescence, specific brain regions, notably the ventral striatum within the basal ganglia, mature in ways that promote reward- and sensation seeking, leading to riskier behavior. Recent, seminal neuroimaging studies show that a heightened sensitivity to rewards dominates adolescent decision-making. . . . 
Research also shows that development of the amygdala between early adolescence and adulthood elevates the brain’s sensitivity to emotional triggers. In fMRI studies in which subjects were shown images of human faces in expressions of fear, researchers found that adolescents, relative to adults, exhibited a general pattern of “heightened amygdala activity and slower behavioral responses to fearful faces.” That finding suggests “increasing emotion regulation capacity from adolescence to adulthood” and “continued functional change from young childhood through early adulthood.” . . .  In sum, new neuroimaging studies reveal that the prefrontal cortex-an area of the brain associated with reasoning and executive function- remains developmentally immature and underregulated until the mid20s, while the brain’s reward centers are relatively overexpressed, making emerging adults “more vulnerable to impulsivity,” less capable of emotional reasoning, and more likely to make “errors in self-regulation.”