Neuroscience and the Law

Recently, the most common neuroscience technology that has started to surface in court cases include the fMRI, or the functional magnetic resonance imaging. The fMRi works by collecting the data of brain flow in the brain when certain actions are carried out. A greater level of blood flow in one region indicates more activity, as more oxygenated blood is required to fuel the neurons to help them send out electrical signals.

A very controversial instance where the fMRI has been used was in the Brian Dugan case, where the defense argued that the 3 murders he conducted was because of his disease rather than when he was in his conscious, fully fit mind. They argued that the defendant should be free because it was not his fault that he had a disease.

In this case, the benefits of using the fMRI as evidence was that it allowed for an insight into the brain that could not have been previously seen by simply taking the stand. This allowed for the jury to understand the scientific aspect of the situation; it allowed them to see how the disorder was not the person acting in his conscious mind, that it was impulsive and a result of poor judgement due to the disease.

However, due to the immaturity of the use of the fMRI in court cases, lots of doubts and holes arise. The first one, in this case, was whether the fMRI scan taken 26 years after the murder was conducted allowed for an accurate image of how the brain of the accused was during the time of murder. There is no way of knowing that at this point, so the recent fMRI can only go as far as say that he was expressing signs of psychopathy now, but there is no way of telling if he was 26 years ago. Another major point against the use of fMRI is the idea of false positives, which was brought up in a study carried out on a dead salmon which showed signs of brain activity. This just goes to show that the data collected by the fMRI cannot be relied on by itself to act as evidence for a case. It can be supported by other data, but the fMRI is not enough to convict someone on its own.

At this point in time, the fMRI should not be admissible in court. There are too many questions that arise if the data is being used as defense. The jury is also likely to misinterpret the information, or not understand the data from the fMRI in context to the case, because they do not have previous knowledge of this technology. The first step towards making fMRI a part of court cases would be to educate people in general about the technology used for brain imagining such as the MRI, fMRI, EEG, etc. This allows them to not be biased toward or against this technology because they are not wowed by the idea of “cutting-edge” science.The fMRi would also have to develop in the aspect of accuracy and consistency to ensure that the data is reliable for use. There is still a way to go before the fMRI becomes more popular, but there is a great chance that it is going to end up being a vital part of court cases in the future.

3 responses to “Neuroscience and the Law”

  1. Grace Frost says:

    The example you’ve pointed out of the dead salmon just strongly highlights the need for development of this kind of technology, especially if it is to be used for making the crucial decisions in court.

  2. Elbert Y. Gong says:

    I agree with your decision that fMRI shouldn’t be admissible in court, and I agree that people need to be educated. Perhaps, if they were educated, they might be a little more lenient to EEG and PET, which are more basic technologies, than to fMRI.

  3. Hannah Bukzin says:

    I like the point you make about the immaturity of the use of fMRI’s in court. I believe it is a very valid and interesting point about the holes and gaps that continue to arise with its use.

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