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

Intellectually Disabled Man Denied Miller hearing by Illinois Supreme Court

Citation: People v. Coty, 2020 IL 123972

Summary: In this case the Illinois Supreme Court reviewed the constitutionality of a 2006 mandatory life sentence imposed on an intellectually disabled man.  William Coty, 46 at the time of his offense, was convicted of predatory criminal sexual assault of a child, criminal sexual assault and aggravated criminal sexual assault and sentenced to a natural life sentence due to a prior sexual assault conviction.  The defendant argued that his statutory mandated life sentence due to a previous sexual assault conviction was a violation of the proportionate penalties clause of the Illinois Constitution, noting that his intellectual disability placed him at a similar developmental stage as an adolescent. In light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Miller, Coty’s counsel argued that a mandatory sentencing scheme that didn’t allow for evaluation of the attendant characteristics of intellectual disability in sentencing was a facial constitutional violation. The court ultimately rejected Coty’s arguments and held that the mandatory sentencing scheme was appropriate and the sentence was affirmed. With regards to the scientific evidence, the court noted: “The enhanced prospect that, as the years go by and neurological development occurs, deficiencies will be reformed—is not a prospect that applies to this intellectually disabled defendant, who was 46 years old when he committed this, his second sexual offense against a child. The rehabilitative prospects of youth do not figure into the sentencing calculus for him.” People v. Coty, 2020 IL 123972, ¶ 40

Key words:  Illinois, Proportionate Penalties Clause, Intellectual Disability, Miller v. Alabama, LWOP

Oklahoma Man Sentenced to Death Granted Evidentiary Hearing to Demonstrate Brain Damage

Citation: United States v. Fields, No. 17-7031 (10th Cir. 2019)

Summary: In June 2005, Edward Leon Fields (36-years-old at the time of offense) pled guilty to two counts of first-degree murder, two counts of using a firearm in a federal crime of violence causing the death of a person and two assimilative crimes. Fields was sentenced to death on the two murder convictions and given substantial prison terms on the remaining charges in connection with a double murder that occurred in the Oklahoma National Forest. On post-conviction appeal, the defendant raised an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, arguing that his counsel failed to adequately investigate and present evidence of his “organic brain damage” during the sentencing phase. Fields argued that the district court abused its discretion and erred in failing to conduct an evidentiary hearing on this claim. Fields alleged that his counsel conducted limited neuropsychological testing prior to the sentencing phase which indicated deficiencies in frontal lobe function.  However, declining the advice of the administering neuropsychologist, further testing was not pursued or presented at trial by counsel. Fields argued that this deprived the jury of hearing relevant mitigating factors about the extent of the damage to his frontal lobe and its effects on his behavior. Notably, though Fields received a 2011 MRI (post-conviction) which did not indicate “frontal lobe or other meaningful brain damage” according to an expert for the state, the court concluded that this did not necessarily undermine Fields’s arguments, stating:

“there is a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether an individual, such as Fields, can have organic brain damage that is revealed by neuropsychological testing, but that does not otherwise appear on an MRI of the brain. Therefore, we in turn conclude that the district court erred in basing its conclusion of no prejudice solely on the 2011 MRI results.”

United States v. Fields, No. 17-7031 (10th Cir. 2019)

The case was remanded for further evidentiary hearings to further explore the merits of the claim.

Key words: Ineffective assistance of counsel, frontal lobe, organic brain damage, death penalty, neuropsychology

U.S. Supreme Court Grants Man With Dementia A Stay of Execution

Citation: Madison v. Alabama, 139 S. Ct. 718 (2019)

Summary: In 1985, 34-year-old Vernon Madison shot and killed a police officer in Alabama and was later convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death. However, since his conviction and during his 30 years on death row, Madison suffered from severe vascular dementia as a result of multiple strokes. Consequently, Madison had no memory of committing his crime. The state of Alabama had scheduled his execution date for May 2016, but Madison petitioned the Alabama Circuit Court for a writ of habeas corpus on the basis that the execution violated the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution due to the fact that “[Madison] could no longer recollect committing the crime from which he had been sentenced to die.” After an evaluation, the Alabama Circuit Court found that Madison was competent to be executed; however, Madison then appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, and a writ of certiorari was granted in 2018.

In February 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that while memory loss alone does not necessarily bar execution, the Eighth Amendment prohibits a person from being executed if they do not “rationally understand” why they are being executed, which in Madison’s case, he did not; thus, the U.S. Supreme Court granted Madison a stay of execution in a 5-3 ruling.

Key Words: Eighth Amendment, death penalty, stay of execution, SCOTUS, vascular dementia, Alabama 

Defendant’s MAOA Gene Evidence Deemed Inadmissible in Murder Case

Citation: State v. Yepez, 428 P.3d 301 (N.M. Ct. App. 2018)

Summary: In July 2018, 31-year-old defendant Anthony Blas Yepez was convicted of second-degree murder, tampering with evidence, and unlawful taking of a motor vehicle after beating a 75 year old man to death in Santa Fe, New Mexico. However, while a neuropsychological evaluation uncovered that Yepez had a genetic, neurological condition — a low-activity MAOA gene —  that Yepez’s experts testified is “statistically associated with the occurrence of maladaptive, or violent, behavior in individuals who have experienced maltreatment in childhood,” this expert testimony was deemed inadmissible in trial court. The state argued that “the evidence was not reliable, not relevant, and so complicated it would confuse and mislead the jury.” Additionally, the state maintained that “current literature does not establish a ‘direct link’ between a low-activity MAOA variant and increased violent behavior.”

Yepez appealed his case to the New Mexico Court of Appeals, arguing that this expert opinion testimony was essential to the trial, as it showed that Yepez was unable to form deliberate intent. Yepez argued that because of the omission of this expert testimony, his conviction should be reversed and he should be granted a new trial. However, the New Mexico Court of Appeals concluded that while the trial court should have included the expert opinion testimony, the exclusion of the evidence did not materially harm Yepez, as the prosecution does not have to prove intent (or premeditation) for a second-degree murder charge. Therefore, the court upheld his conviction.

Key Words: neuroscience admissibility in court, brain science, expert opinion testimony, second-degree murder, New Mexico

19-year-old Defendant is Denied Appeal After Court Declines To Extend Miller

Citation: People v. Price, 2017 IL App (1st) 14-3392-U

Summary: In 2012, 19-year-old defendant Jarron Price was found guilty of armed violence and sentenced to a mandatory minimum of 15 years imprisonment in the state of Illinois. Price appealed on the grounds that his sentencing violated the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, as well as the proportionate penalties clause of the Illinois constitution. Price argued that the imposition of a 15-year minimum sentence for his crimes did not take into account the “transient signature qualities of his youth.” His counsel argued that although he was 19 at the time offense, and thus under the law considered an adult, the age of 19 is “purely arbitrary.” They argued that Price was more similar to a juvenile than an adult and that therefore Price’s age should have been taken into account when imposing his sentence. 

         The court denied his appeal based primarily on the grounds that unlike Miller, who was facing a life-sentence, Price’s sentence was 15 years and therefore did not fall under “most severe of all criminal penalties.” Additionally, while the court acknowledged the claim that a 19 year-old is in many ways similar to a 17-year old, the court observed that “until [the Illinois Supreme Court] addresses the application of juvenile sentencing to adult defendants, [the Court] is not at liberty to extend the rationale of Miller, Roper, Graham and Reyes to an adult defendant.” Therefore, the court upheld Price’s sentence.

Key words: Eighth Amendment, Miller v. Alabama, mandatory minimum, emerging adults, Illinois