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.

Undoing the Damage of Mass Incarceration

gertner_150x150By Nancy Gertner | The Boston Globe | November 4, 2015

Over a 17-year judicial career, I sent hundreds of defendants to jail — and about 80 percent of them received a sentence that was disproportionate, unfair, and discriminatory. Mass incarceration was not an abstraction to me. Sadly, I was part of it.

Last weekend’s release of 6,000 prisoners from federal prison is an encouraging start to reform, but it’s only a start.

I was a judge during the most punitive period of US history — the ’90s — when we imprisoned more than any other country, even the most autocratic. I did what I could to mitigate the impact of the laws I had to apply. There were 10-, 15-, and 20-year mandatory sentences for drugs, which made no sense under any rational social policy. There were mandatory-sentencing guidelines, which often led to absurd results. When I made a small downward adjustment, explaining what I did in a written opinion, I risked reversal by an appellate court that saw only sentencing calculations, not people. Continue reading »

Will we ever know why Dzhokhar Tsarnaev spoke after it was too late?

By Nancy Gertner | The Boston Globe | June 30, 2015

The government focused on the claim that Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev did not show remorse for his heinous, unimaginable crime until last week’s sentencing proceeding. That, counsel suggested, was too little, too late. Why was Tsarnaev silent during the penalty phase, when his life was on the line, only to speak after the jury chose death, when it no longer mattered? The sealed docket entries, the arguments of counsel, the documents that have been kept from the public, may hold the clue.

The defense reported that there was a 2013 letter from Tsarnaev, written just months after the bombing, about which the government knew. It suggested that letter did demonstrate remorse, and further, that Tsarnaev went so far as to offer to cooperate with the government. The letter was sealed under the government’s Special Administrative Measures. SAMs, as these measures are called, were put in place to block a defendant’s communications with the outside world, even if those communications contained an apology, had evidentiary value, and — in this case — may have served to dissuade others from following Tsarnaev’s lead. What did he say then? What was the context?

Continue reading »

Dzokhar Tsarnaev: Adolescent or Adult?

By Laurence Steinberg | The Boston Globe | March 30, 2015

As the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the accused Boston Marathon bomber, moves into its defense phase, his attorneys likely will lean heavily on the science of adolescent development to argue that their client should be spared the death penalty. Judy Clarke, Tsarnaev’s lead defense attorney, has already made several references about Tsarnaev’s youthfulness and susceptibility to the influence of his older brother.

Technically, the proceeding is about determining the appropriate punishment for Tsarnaev, who has admitted his involvement in the attack. But the trial is also a referendum on how we view and define adolescence. Continue reading »

Older and wiser? Some brain functions improve as we age

By Kay Lazar | The Boston Globe | 6 March 2015

There is hope for aging baby boomers.

The ability to recall names and faces with lightning speed may start to fade in one’s 20s, but our capability to perform other functions, such as learning new words, doesn’t peak until decades later, according to a new study by Boston scientists.

Increasingly, researchers are discovering that the ability to reason, learn, and recall information ebbs and flows over our lifespan, and if a picture were drawn to depict these changes, the image would not be of a single line with a sharp, steep decline, but of a line with many curves that plateau at different stages. Continue reading »

Massachusetts high court to hear eyewitness ID cases

By Denise Lavoie | The Associated Press | August 25, 2014

Zachary Sevigny was slashed with a box cutter by a stranger outside a convenience store in 2011.

Neither Sevigny nor his friend identified Jeremy Gomes as the attacker when shown his picture in a police photo array. But a week later, they saw Gomes inside a Pittsfield gas station and told police he was the culprit.

Gomes was found guilty of the attack, but his lawyer is challenging his conviction based on what he says were unreliable eyewitness identifications.

That challenge is one of four cases seeking changes in the way eyewitness identification testimony is presented to juries. The cases are set to be heard by the highest court in Massachusetts next month. Defense attorneys are pushing the court to adopt stronger instructions to advise jurors that eyewitness identifications are not always reliable. Continue reading »