Neuroscience and the Law

August 4, 2014

Currently, neuroscience technology is being developed at a faster rate than ever before. While it seems that these recent developments are designed to diagnose neurological problems or to help people overcome neurological challenges, many people do not realize the alternate use of neuroscience technology in a court of law.

In the past, polygraphs were frequently used in court, detecting changes in blood pressure, pulse, skin conductivity, and respiratory rate. Erratic changes in these measurements were thought to indicate lying. However, people can learn to keep calm to “trick” the test, rendering the polygraph inaccurate. More recently, CT scans and MRIs have been used as evidence in courts. CT scans and MRIs can show abnormalities in the brain. For example, the CT scan of the brain of John Hinckley Jr, the man to attempted to assassinate President Reagan, showed “slight brain shrinkage and abnormally large ventricles”. The defense lawyers stated that this was indicative of a mental defect, though the prosecution claimed the scans were normal. In addition, a structural MRI looks at the static structure of the brain, and has been used to diagnose disorders like schizophrenia, for example.

The most recent piece of neuroscience technology to make its way into the court is the fMRI, functional magnetic resonance imaging. The fMRI looks at areas of blood flow in the brain to detect areas of activity during cognitive control, attention, and moral decision making tests. This has been used in place of a polygraph, as it is thought that frontal lobe activity can indicate lying, in addition to activity in the areas of the brain that are involved in impulse control and decision making. Also, the fMRI has shown that the brains of psychopaths show distinct defects in the paralimbic system that controls memory and emotion. fMRI scans have been shown in court so that the defense could plead insanity. One example of this is the case of Brian Dugan, a man who had raped and murdered women and young girls. His fMRI scan was presented in court, and the defense could use it to claim that “Dugan is a psychopath and could not control his killer impulses”.

Though the fMRI seems like an accurate, reliable piece of neuroscience technology, it has far more points against it than for it. The fMRI detects activity based on blood flow, but it has nothing to do with the activity of neurons. If it cannot show or measure the firing of brain cells, how do we know that blood flow is an accurate predictor of neuronal activity? The fMRI is rarely used in diagnosis, so it cannot be used to prove that someone is schizophrenic or a psychopath, for example. A recent fMRI scan does not necessarily indicate anything about a person’s mental status at the time he or she committed the crime, so, again, in court, it cannot be used to prove that the person was experiencing a mental health episode. Most importantly, it is very difficult to interpret the results of an fMRI for one single case. When studying fMRIS, neuroscientists look at average differences between different groups of people; showing a single fMRI during a court case would be very misleading. The fMRI is in no way reliable or accurate enough, at this time, to be used in legal settings.

Some lawyers may claim that neuroscience technology should undoubtedly be used in court. It can show patterns of brain activity or brain processes that can identify a person’s altered mental state. They believe that it is scientific proof, and should be treated as any other piece of evidence. However, for this exact reason, neuroscience technology should not be used as evidence in court. It may be used to make the defense look impressive, easily misleading a jury. In addition, if members of the jury do not have an understanding of this technology, for example how one single fMRI scan is almost irrelevant, they can also be misled. Perhaps, in the future, as more neuroscience technology becomes available, and existing neuroscience technology becomes more accurate and reliable, it can be reintroduced into courts. For now, however, neuroscience technology should be left out of the courts.


Neuroscience in the Law

August 4, 2014

In court, one of the biggest obstacles to justice is this: you can’t tell whether someone is lying. If somebody says they didn’t kill the victim, do you believe them? If somebody pleads insanity, do you really know that they are insane? This is why some courts have turned to brain technology to try to answer some of these questions.

Numerous types of brain technology have been used. In 1982, the CT (X-ray) scan of John Hinckley Jr. showed abnormally sized portions of the brain, which may have indicated a mental defect. In the 1990’s, neuroscientist Ruben Gur developed algorithms, with limited (around 80%) accuracy, that could use positron emission tomography and structural MRI to test for schizophrenia or brain damage.

The main type of brain technology currently being debated by the courts is known as fMRI, or functional magnetic resonance imaging. First, you place the person’s head inside an MRI scanner, which contains a large donut-shaped magnet. When the person does a particular action, such as talking, the parts of the brain associated with talking will experience increased electrical activity. When this happens, more oxygenated blood will be sent to that part of the brain. Because of the MRI’s magnetic field, the protons in the blood are spinning. However, protons in oxygenated blood spin more slowly than protons in non-oxygenated blood. Thus, when oxygenated blood is sent to active parts of the brain, the scanner can detect the change in the protons’ spin. The scanner is continuously measuring the spin in all areas of the brain, and it uses this information to generate a continuous picture. When parts of the brain have slower spinning protons, this shows up in the image as a bright, fluorescent area. Therefore, the fMRI allows you to tell which parts of the brain are being used when a person does a particular activity or receives a particular stimulus.

Down the road, if scientists are able to link patterns of brain activity with certain states of mind, neuroscience will be an invaluable tool to look into the thoughts of court witnesses. One scientist trying to accomplish this is Kent Kiehl, a neuroscientist who collects brain data on psychopaths. He has noticed distinguishing traits in the brain of a psychopath: certain distinct defects in the paralimbic system of the brain. He has amassed a lot of data and noticed average differences in the brains of certain special populations. This data definitely has an application, because, if you fMRI scan a witness and see that his brain has certain traits (e.g abnormal thinness in the areas involving empathy), you know that he has a higher statistical probability of being a psychopath. People complain that the fMRI is still primitive, and thus unreliable in these types of situations. But then again, almost every piece of data has a measure of unreliability to it. The standards of reliability/admissibility in a courtroom are lower than the standards in a scientific lab.

Another application of the fMRI is in lie detection. According to Stanford researchers: under controlled experimental conditions, and with certain complex algorithms, fMRI data can be used to tell whether individuals think they are lying or telling the truth. Lying activates brain regions involved in suppressing information and resolving conflicts. By averaging a set of fMRI data on a particular individual, the fMRI can also tell whether the person tends to lie more often or tell the truth more often. Accusations against the integrity and character of a witness are important to consider, and they are admissible in the courtroom.

However, the fMRI has come under intense controversy for its uses in the courtroom, and for good reason. One chief complaint of scientists testifying against fMRI use is that fMRI technology is still relatively crude and primitive. It’s slow, taking two or three seconds to scan the entire brain once. This also introduces the aspect of luck into fMRI use. Researchers once used the fMRI to find brain activity in a dead salmon. This demonstrates the risk of measuring false positives due to just the neural noise in the brain. This also highlights the crudeness of the fMRI. Voxels (3-d pixels) in the image are large. fMRI is also crude because you’re not actually measuring the electrical activity of neurons. You’re really just measuring oxygenated blood levels in different general areas of the brain. This is thought to be correlated with neural activity, but obviously it cannot be a 100% correlation. In addition, the data you compile of certain witnesses may not even be applicable. If you are screening a defendant for psychopathy, their brain may have changed significantly in the time since they committed the crime. This is especially true for people whose cases are brought up in court decades after they actually committed the crime.

fMRI is rarely used in diagnosis of disease for the same reasons that fMRI should not be used in the courtroom. Most fMRI studies are small and unreplicated, so the body of data is quite limited. And, fMRI studies only compare average differences in brain activity in groups. For instance, they say: on average, psychopaths have lower brain activity in these certain regions than non-psychopaths. However, the groups “people with regular brain activity” and “psychopaths” are not mutually exclusive. It is impossible to scientifically ascertain that one particular person is a psychopath because he has lower brain activity. Also, psychopaths have complicated, varying symptoms. Some psychopaths share neurological responses to people with damaged medial temporal lobes. If an unscrupulous scientist picked up on that in an fMRI, he might label somebody as a psychopath when really, they only had a concussion or some type of brain damage. It’s the same with lying. If a scientist witnessed increased brain activity in lying-related areas, he might conclude that the witness was lying when really, he was just thinking hard about not lying.

In short, additional research is needed before fMRIs can be used to make specific conclusions about people’s brains. Overall, there is such a wide range of symptoms, like neurological responses and abnormal connections, in different groups of people. There are many exceptions, overlaps, and lurking variables in the data. This makes the data very “hazy”. Only more research and more careful studying of the finer details of the brain can pave the way for fMRI to be a viable technology in the courtroom. Since imprecise data has the potential to inaccurately bias juries, the prejudicial detriments of fMRI technology outweigh the probative benefits.


Neuroscience and the Law

August 4, 2014

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.


Neuroscience and the Law

August 4, 2014

In 2009 when Brian Dugan pleaded guilty to the rape and murder of a female nurse, brain imaging was by the defense as evidence to suggest that Dugan may not have committed these crimes intentionally or that he was in a mental state that would somehow make him less personally responsible. An fMRI was discussed and interpreted in front a jury but the jury did not physically see the scans. In some other criminal cases, a polygraph has been used to tell if a witness or defendant is not being truthful in their testimony. Also, fMRI has shown that certain parts of the brain are more active than when a person is being honest, however, there is not a consensus on if this is true for every individual.

An fMRI includes a large magnet that measures the flow of oxygenated hemoglobin in the brain. When there is an influx in a certain area of the brain, the machine detects the signal using the magnet and in the brain image, the parts of the brain where there was increased flow are lit up. The image is not very spatially accurate though and nothing can be derived about individual neurons. Also, there is a lot of variability in brain activity from person to person within an experimental group, which makes it nearly impossible to make a definitive conclusion about the specific level functionality of one subject. A polygraph picks up electrical signals and detects arousal from the neurons in your peripheral nervous system and in the ones associated with emotion. Using this data, an investigator can try to conclude how honest the subject is being. Questions must be asked in such a way that the investigator does not use data conclusively from the subject that includes neuronal activity that may be associated with being nervous just from being investigated or hooked up to a machine.

Some professionals, mostly including defense attorneys, in the field of criminal law are in favor of being allowed to use fMRI scans, the most recent development in neuroscience that may be able to display an individual’s brain activity and mental state, in court as evidence. Although not with any certainty, an fMRI can reveal the mental state of an individual in the sense that the defendant may not be sane or is incapable of using rational thought or judgment based on the size of brain regions and the level of activity in regions associated with decision making, fear, emotion, etc. This would then lower the guilt of the suspect themselves. To some, this may allow for a more well-rounded assessment of the suspect, as the suspect would then be less personally guilty, and to the best of its ability, the law tries to measure the degree of responsibility one has for their previous actions.

The main point against using fMRI in court as evidence is that a recent scan is not reflective of the mental state of the suspect when they committed the crime, but rather the state when the scan was performed. For the scan to be relevant however, it would have to reveal something about the defendant when he was breaking the law. Also, individual scans cannot be compared accurately because this technology is only used in research to study groups of people because there is too much variation among individuals to gather meaningful conclusions. fMRI scanning is not established for diagnosis of any psychiatric disorders and the polygraph can be very inaccurate in detecting signal that solely indicate a lie and not something unrelated. Therefore, it is said that it should not be used to sway the jury’s decision because the scan may be falsely interpreted by the defense attorney.

Personally, I don’t think a polygraph or an fMRI should be used as evidence in court unless the image is taken very near the time of the crime and is compared with the scans of many other people who have committed the same crime and also with people who have similar scans. One image does not allow for a scientific or medical conclusion to be drawn about a subject, especially because although the data may seem very different from the average, the subject may very well be within statistical boundaries of the average. Every juror probably will not understand how to interpret statistics about that data presented and will not understand that the technology does not allow research scientists to declare anything about the mental state of person, especially when the defense attorney is not a scientist. Whether or not the person was mentally stable when they committed the crime or whether they could think rationally is not relevant to the consequences of their actions. If someone is murdered, whether or not the assailant is crazy doesn’t change the fact that the person is dead. The effect that the actions of the assailant had on society is what matters. Criminal law exists to protect the general public. The punishment for the crime should be proportional to the physical and definitive damage done, not whether or not they were mentally stable in the act.


Neuroscience and the Law

August 3, 2014

The use of neuroscience technologies in court cases will most definitely revolutionize the enforcement of laws. Justice could easily be awarded if brain imaging technology is effectively utilized as further evidence. Until this point in time, only a few brain scanning techniques have been applied, but each comes with its own set of benefits and faults.

Electroencephalography (EEG) is most commonly used to measure electrical activity in the brain. In order to do so, these electrodes are typically fastened to a flexible cap (similar to a swimming cap) that is placed on the participant’s head. From the scalp, the electrodes measure the electrical activity that is naturally occurring within the brain. This type of brain scan is passive, no current is delivered. The signal being measured is the difference in charges between the electrodes. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is a method that is used to assess changes in activity of tissue, such as measuring changes in neural activity in different areas of the brain during thought. Also, fMRI measures the change in the concentration of oxygenated hemoglobin, which is known as the blood-oxygen-level-dependent (BOLD) signal.

There are positive and negative associations with each of these brain tests. EEG for instance directly measures brain activity, whereas fMRI does not, neural activity must be inferred. Also, an EEG is temporally precise and has the ability to detect brain synchrony. But because an EEG can be done by placing the electrodes directly on the skull, the test is movement sensitive and has poor spatial resolution. fMRI data typically have poor temporal resolution; however, when combined with sMRI, fMRI provides excellent spatial resolution.  This method is valuable for identifying specific areas of the brain that are associated with different physical or psychological tasks; fMRI is an excellent tool for comparing brain activation in different tasks and/or populations. Clinically, fMRI may be used prior to neurosurgery in order to identify areas that are associated with language so that the surgeon can avoid those areas during the operation. fMRI allows researchers to identify differential or convergent patterns of activation associated with tasks.

I believe that neuroscience technology is often not given enough credit in association with the law. Courts should be more open towards new methods of testing and new forms of evidence. There is a high percentage that these techniques will work in the favor of proving those innocent and guilty. With the establishment of the M’Naghten rule neuroscientists believe that they can such brain scans as a supplement to prove that an individual is not mentally aware of crimes they have committed or criminal activity. However, it must also be considered that perception of reality differs from person to person, not two people are alike. An EEG or fMRI may work for some cases, but not at all in others. But for medical advancements to come through in a court of law, these chances should be taken. Hopefully, not only criminal activity in the brain, but aid will also be provided in due time.


Forensic Neuroscience: Is it here?

August 3, 2014

The last few decades have seen outstanding progress in the field of forensic science. From fingerprints to ballistics to DNA profiling, crime detection has become less speculative and more scientific. Now, scientists are attempting to use brain imaging techniques as evidence of behaviors such as lying and psychopathic tendencies.

Neuroscience is a branch of biology that deals with the study of the nervous system. As the control center of the nervous system, the brain is the science’s obvious focus. However, the gargantuan complexity of the organ, combined with technological constraints means that there is still a great discrepancy between our understanding of the molecular structure and functioning of the brain, and its translation into individual behavior and personality.

However, scientists are making progress towards linking brain anatomy to behavior, and a great deal of the findings in this area can be attributed to fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging). fMRI can give scientists a vague idea of the localization of brain activity. It operates along the assumption that the areas of the brain that are most active will require the most oxygen and glucose (which are used by cells for energy). As oxygen and glucose are carried in the blood, the area with the most blood flow is the most active. fMRI evidence has shown what areas of the brain are connected with movement, learning and decision-making

The justice system is primarily concerned with the use of fMRI in lie detection and psychiatric diagnosis.

A reliable lie detection system could revolutionize the criminal justice system. The ‘not guilty’ plea could revoked entirely, with court cases focusing more on severity of sentence rather than the establishment of guilt. Malicious prosecution and wrongful imprisonment could also be greatly avoided. Polygraph tests (despite strong convictions within both the judicial and scientific communities of their inaccuracy) are still used as interrogation tools and attempted evidence. However, even the most recent research into lie detection using fMRI is unconvincing. Scientists haven’t been able to find specific indicators of dishonesty.

There has, however, been research suggesting the ability to detect predispositions towards overall honest or dishonest behavior. Given the extensive precedent for character witnesses, perhaps fMRI could play a role in establishing strength of character.

Psychiatric diagnosis has using fMRI has also received a great deal of attention. Diagnosis of psychopathy is highly regarded in criminal case proceedings. The current paradigm for this is the Hare Psychopathy Checklist – Revised (PCL-R) which uses a checklist of behavioral indicators for diagnosis. However, these behavioral indicators are proxies for abnormalities in brain function. The problem is, very little is known about what those abnormalities are. At very best, scientists have been able to show an overall difference in the size and activity of certain brain regions. Unfortunately, the parameters for normal and abnormal function overlap far too much to give a high degree of statistical certainty.

One must also take into account the effect that the use of fMRI could have on juries. The CSI effect is a well-known and extensively studied phenomenon. One aspect of this is the increased bias that juries show towards scientific evidence using ‘cutting-edge’ or ‘experimental’ technologies. Yet, these technologies (like fMRI) are not necessarily reliable. Hence, the use of fMRI as evidence could unfairly influence juries towards conclusions supported by the evidence, regardless of the validity of the evidence in question.

Therefore, I do not recommend that fMRI be admissible evidence in court cases. There are no fMRI indicators reliable enough to be convincing evidence of dishonesty or psychopathy, but the wonder and absoluteness associated with forensic techniques may cause juries to place undue worth in its findings.


Neuroscience and the Law

August 3, 2014

MRIs and similar neurological data is seldom used as evidence in trials, however they have the potential to reveal a substantial amount of information regarding a witness’s credibility and responsibility in the future. Functional MRIs measure the levels of oxygenated hemoglobin in the body that occurs when a part of the brain is particularly active. MRIs are essentially an indirect measure of neuronal activity, and provide images that describe somebody’s state of mind. This technology does not, however, measure the firing of brain cells directly, but rather deals with blood flow. In oder to define the imaging of a brain associated with a certain type of brain activity, the brain scan must be compared to an average of many scans. Thus, even though a defendant’s scan may appear vastly different from the average, it may still be well within the statistical average of brain activity.

Attorneys are beginning to ask judges to admit MRI data as evidence in order to demonstrate that a defendant is telling the truth or to dismiss accusations of insanity. While some judges accept this data because they believe it offers information that gives jurors a better understanding of an issue or salvages fruitless debates, other judges reject the data because they believe the scans would be too persuasive and carry too much weight due to their scientific nature. This has been a controversy in legal rooms, however the general consensus thus far has been that scans offer an unfair advantage to one side and carry with them prejudice. Furthermore, MRIs can only dismiss accusations regarding physical brain injury, and some criminal defense attorneys may introduce the scans in order to convince the jurors that the defendant is suffering from a cognitive or emotional disorder. The science of MRIs simply does not allow us to draw these conclusions as of yet.

Functional MRIs offer good scientific information, however very little of it is admissible in courts. For example, experiments using MRIs have proven that dishonest behavior is correlated with extra activity in certain brain regions which are involved in impulse control. Having date and images of this brain activity could be very useful in trials, as it could be a great indicator regarding the honesty of the defendant. However, most judges still refuse to accept this evidence. The main reason for this is that showing the brain scan of a defendant without a substantial amount of data from a similar population group would mislead a jury. Brain activity is not standardizes and scientists cannot predict the normal variations in brain anatomy. Judges already have a difficult task in evaluating whether psychiatric and similar disorders should be taken into account when discussing culpability. Allowing brain images, even highly informative ones, will only add to this challenge.

Another argument against accepting MRI evidence is that scientific advances have the potential of separating our brains and minds from our personal responsibilities. In the 2005 case Roper vs. Simmons, the US Supreme Court decided that no person younger than 18 at the time of the crime could receive a death penalty because juveniles are more susceptible to negative influences and suffer from immaturity. In 2010, it was decided that a person younger than 18 was also excused from a sentence of life without parole. Although it is true that those younger than 18 are more easily influenced and less capable to make a decision than an adult, it is also true that a person, and not a brain, commits a crime. Where does neurological data stop being useful and start being used as an excuse for a crime?

In my professional opinion, brain scans and similar data should be kept to a minimum in a court of law. While they do hold potential and in some cases would make issues clearer for jurors, the limitations and consequences of these technologies pose a greater risk.


Neuroscience and the law

August 3, 2014

Using neuroscience technologies in court cases (such as newly advanced neuroimaging procedures) will undoubtedly have the potential to change law enforcement as we know it today. How we determine if someone is guilty could arguably become dependent on genuine scientific evidence. So far, the technologies that have been used as part of a court case (with a huge variety of reactions I should point out) include the fMRI (known to scientists as Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging), as well as techniques such as electroencephalography (EEG) and brain electrical oscillations signature (BEOS). Many more neuroscience technologies of this nature are currently under development, with a similar purpose in mind.

The fMRI works by measuring the activity of specific regions of the brain by means of blood flow to the area.  The assumption is made that greater blood flow to this region of the brain correlates to the activity of brain cells, which is then used as almost a modern day lie detector. Since the fMRI is not directly measuring signals between brain cells, an average is generated using multiple test subjects, to act as a comparison for the data obtained of the accused in the court room. An electroencephalogram is the recording of electrical activity across the scalp, which, like the fMRI, can be used as a form of lie detection. An abnormality in the pattern of brainwave activity will act as an indication that the individual is not being truthful. The assumption made with this technology is that every individual processes information that is familiar to them, differently from information that they do not recognise/ have never come across (and therefore the pattern will be slightly different). This enables neuro professionals to identify someone who is deceiving the court from someone who is not.

 The possibility that our brain could be responsible in shaping our behaviour is one reason why we should be using neuroscientific evidence in court cases. If this kind of technology had the ability to spot trends in the activity of the brains who have committed serious crimes, there is real potential for the development of treatments to “correct” this behaviour.

A major counter argument of using neurotechnologies such as the fMRI in the court room, is that the scans could have the potential to be used  by the defendant, as a persuasive argument for the benefit of themselves. He/she could argue that they have been clinically classified as a psychopath , with an abnormality to the brain, and that they no longer hold the responsibility for the crime they committed. Consequently, there could be an uproar that people can continue to commit crimes with no real punishment for their actions. Since the brain is the organ that makes us who we are, could this mean all behaviours could be excused on biological ground? Additionally, using evidence obtained from such neurotechnologies could  heavily influence jurisdiction one way or another in terms of the action that should be taken, and hence create bias in the courtroom.  There is also some concern as to whether neuroscience professionals could manipulate some of the scientific evidence in favour of their own opinions.

 As the knowledge of the brain stands, my view is that court cases should not  be heavily reliant on neurotechnologies. Currently, knowledge of various mental illnesses is not strong enough to give us definitive answers, and therefore could be dangerous in making such decisions. However, I do believe that as our understanding of neurological processes grows, that we should be looking more into the reasons behind our actions. Maybe for some individuals there is a genuine reason why they have acted in a particular way. I think that the use of this technology could be extremely useful in concluding the mental state of that individual, and could be the tipping point as to whether or not they are acquitted.


Neuroscience and the Law!

August 3, 2014

MRIs have been used in court cases for a little while. This technology offers evidence as to criminal intent and mindset. This evidence is used to change jury’s decisions and decide sentences for defendants. This type of evidence has been extremely valuable to many cases in the past, and has become the deciding factor in a few as well. Since it is possible to reduce a sentence for a crime to time in a mental facility, lawyers have been trying to get MRIs done on inmates in order to prove that their criminal behavior was something out of their control. If it can be proven that a criminal committed a crime because of a “problem” within his brain, the criminal may just get by with a mental facility sentence.

This could be advantageous if a criminal really has no control over their actions; if the defendant is mentally unable to comprehend the difference between doing what is good or bad. The defendant could have diseases within the brain that make them do things, and they really may not be as “evil” as they are made out to be with guilt. Should a criminal have done something based on mental illness or a difference found within the brain that does not coincide with a “normal” human brain, it could be extremely valuable to the court case. This proof of mental illness in criminals could lead to their getting help within mental facilities that could eventually lead to their recovery.

However, I believe that not all people are alike. I believe that this evidence should not always work the same for each and every person. I believe that some may thrive on a chance for recovery, and in this case the MRI evidence would be beneficial to the criminal and to the good of the public. However, there are others who may use the slightly lessened watchfulness and caution in a mental facility as a chance to escape or cause harm unto another. I believe it is impossible to judge whether people’s motives stem from problems within their brains or their own character. A person’s brain and a person’s character are two different but comparable things, depending on what one believes. The two line themselves up in a very indistinct grey area, making this idea of studying the brain vs. character flaws in court cases such a controversial idea.

I do believe that MRIs should be used in court cases. I feel as though they should be used to substantiate the evidence whether for or against the defendant. However, I do not believe that this evidence should be the deciding factor in the jury’s sentencing decisions. I believe that the former evidence should allow the jury to make the decision. After the evidence has been sorted through and motive has been established, I believe that the MRI evidence for mental illness, etc. can be put to use. Only then can a clear and just decision about the fate of the criminal be made.


Neuroscience and the Law

August 3, 2014

There has been much debate over whether or not brain scans and other neurological “evidence” should or should not be allowed. This debate is being fought on many different fields of science and within the jurisdiction system itself. Generally speaking, prosecutors are against the use of these scans in the court room as the jurors could be swayed in the direction that the defense is trying to show due to the stigma surrounding scientific “facts.” Scientific evidence such as scans will be highly appealing to the jurors and/ or judge. The defense attorneys are generally in favor of the use of these same scans for the same reasons listed above as to why prosecutors do not necessarily approve of them.

The most common neurological scans that are attempted to be placed into evidence by the defense attorneys (or maybe prosecution attorneys) are Functional Magnetic Resonance Images (fMRIs) and lie detector test results. Lie detection is based off of the blow flow, heart rate, and many other factors measured by a machine as the person being interrogated is answering questions. fMRIs work by placing a subject into the machine that tracts the blood flow within the brain between specific areas that are thought to correlate with specific function and actions.

The use of lie detectors has been dismissed for many years for the mere fact that the signals and other signs being measured can be controlled by the subject or influenced by the situation. If you can control your heart rate and breathing you may be able to trick the test; similarly, if you are nervous or stressed out, the machine may read what you are saying as a lie if it is in fact a truth. fMRIs cannot say definitively whether or not the disruption in blood flow is caused by activity in that brain region. They also do not give definite answers on whether or not the subject has a mental disorder that would affect his judgments and actions.

That being said, the use of them as evidence is not completely unjustified. Although they do not give perfectly accurate, definitive answers they can be used for a general judgment. Take the fMRI for example, it may not be able to show if each question answered is being answered truthfully, but it can show if the person was, in general, being honest. They can show if there is a malfunction or structural impediment that the person has that may have influenced his or her actions.

Personally, in the debate of the legal use of neurological scans and images, I would advise against it. I do not believe that the technology is advanced enough to give us the definitive answers that should be required by the courts. Once scientists are able to look at a scan, and say with almost no doubt that a subject, defendant, person, has something wrong with them that made it impossible for them to resist the urge to do what they did, then the use of these scans will be completely validated. Although they can provide reasonable doubt, is that because the jurors are easily swayed by the scientific look of the scans or the evidence they may or may not prove?