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.

Did Brain Scans Just Save a Convicted Murderer From the Death Penalty?

Evidence of John McCluskey’s brain abnormalities presented by his defense team. Blue areas represent larger deviations from normal. PACER

John McCluskey escaped from an Arizona prison in July, 2010. A few days later, he and two accomplices — one of whom was both his cousin and fiancee – carjacked Linda and Gary Haas, a vacationing Oklahoma couple in their 60s. McCluskey shot the Haases inside the camping trailer they were towing behind their truck, and set the trailer on fire with their bodies still inside. McCluskey was convicted for the carjacking and two murders in federal court on Oct. 7.

Yesterday the jury charged with deciding his sentence announced that it had been unable to come to a unanimous decision on the death penalty. That means he’ll get life without parole.

Perhaps it’s little wonder the jury couldn’t agree — they’d been given a lot to consider. McCluskey’s defense team had tried to convince them that he has several brain defects that, combined with other factors, contributed to his crimes and should be considered mitigating circumstances. The defense presented the results of several types of brain scans and various psychological tests, as well as testimony from neurologists and other experts.

Read the full article at WIRED magazine.  December 12, 2013.  By Greg Miller.

Justices Bar Mandatory Life Terms for Juveniles

By Adam Liptak and Ethan Bronner | The New York Times | June 25, 2012

Some 2,000 juvenile offenders serving life sentences without parole were given hope of eventual release by the Supreme Court on Monday. The court ruled that laws requiring youths convicted of murder to be sentenced to die in prison violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The 5-to-4 decision divided the court along ideological lines, with Justice Anthony M. Kennedy joining the four members of the liberal wing. Justice Kennedy also provided the decisive vote in two other decisions issued Monday — on Arizona’s immigration law and on a sequel to the court’s decision in the Citizens United campaign finance case. Continue reading »

Are adolescents less mature than adults?: minors’ access to abortion, the juvenile death penalty, and the alleged APA “flip-flop”

The American Psychological Association’s (APA’s) stance on the psychological maturity of adolescents has been criticized as inconsistent. In its Supreme Court amicus brief in Roper v. Simmons (2005), which abolished the juvenile death penalty, APA described adolescents as developmentally immature. In its amicus brief in Hodgson v. Minnesota (1990), however, which upheld adolescents’ right to seek an abortion without parental involvement, APA argued that adolescents are as mature as adults. The authors present evidence that adolescents demonstrate adult levels of cognitive capability earlier than they evince emotional and social maturity. On the basis of this research, the authors argue that it is entirely reasonable to assert that adolescents possess the necessary skills to make an informed choice about terminating a pregnancy but are nevertheless less mature than adults in ways that mitigate criminal responsibility. The notion that a single line can be drawn between adolescence and adulthood for different purposes under the law is at odds with developmental science. Drawing age boundaries on the basis of developmental research cannot be done sensibly without a careful and nuanced consideration of the particular demands placed on the individual for “adult-like” maturity in different domains of functioning.

 

Read the full paper here.