Neuroscience and the Law

On November 5, 2009, Kent Kiehl, a neuroscientist, took the stand to describe the scientific findings from an fMRI scan of Brian Dugan’s brain.  Kiehl took the stand for around 6 hours describing how Dugan scored a 38 out of 40 on the Hare Psychopathy Checklist and continued on with the analysis of Dugan’s brain.  Allowing fMRI evidence into court has recently been a controversial subject because, as some critics say, it is rarely used in diagnosis and there is no way to know that during the time of the scan, the defendants mental status is the same as it was when he/she was committing the crime.

An fMRI, otherwise known as a functional magnetic resonance imaging, uses a strong magnetic field and radio waves to create a very detailed image of the blood flow in the brain.  More specifically, an fMRI can also be used to detect where certain activity is occurring in the brain which can lead to scientists to understand what we are feeling, when we are lying etc.  Other technologies used in court cases include a positron emission tomography (PET) scan.  A PET scan is a type of nuclear medicine imaging.  It involves a patient to inhale, swallow or be injected with radiotracers which are used to light up a specific point of activity in the body or brain.  In court cases, a PET scan is better than an fMRI to diagnose mental abnormalities such as schizophrenia or any other mental disorder.

Using an fMRI as evidence in a court case has been a very controversial subject in both the medical field and with lawyers, judges and jurors.  In reality, an fMRI can be used to detect physical abnormalities in the brain.  In this case, if there is tissue missing from the brain and there is indication of a psychiatric illness, this is more or less legitimate evidence in a court case.  The brain scan doesn’t lie.  On the other hand, fMRI’s are rarely used for diagnosis and there is a much better way of showing the same data in a more concrete way.  In addition, there is no way to say that the defendants brain is in the same condition as it was when he/she committed the crime.  The brain changes all the time, so unless the scan was done directly after the crime was committed, there is no way of knowing.   A PET scan is much more concrete than the fMRI scan.  It is used much more in the field to diagnose psychiatric conditions and is much more established for diagnosis than the fMRI is.

Therefore, with the evidence presented above, my recommendation is not to let fMRI’s be used as court evidence.  If the defense team would like to present another method of technology with a more solid reputation, I think that is to be taken up in a separate manner.  An fMRI does not use enough concrete evidence to dismiss a person from a crime they have committed.  It is important that everyone get a fair and equal trial, and by using an fMRI, I do not think that is an acceptable thing to allow back into the courtroom.

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