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The Courts Science

Brain Scans Used In Murder Sentencing 328

Posted by kdawson
from the innocent-as-a-dead-salmon dept.
sciencehabit writes "For what may be the first time, fMRI scans of brain activity have been used as evidence in the sentencing phase of a murder trial. Defense lawyers for an Illinois man convicted of raping and killing a 10-year-old girl used the scans to argue that their client should be spared the death penalty because he has a brain disorder. Some experts say the scans are irrelevant because they were taken 20+ years after the crimes were committed. Others point out that the scans are only being considered because the sentencing phase of a trial has less stringent standards about evidence than those used to establish a defendant's innocence or guilt." In the Illinois case, the fMRI defense didn't help the defendant, whom a jury sentenced to death.
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Brain Scans Used In Murder Sentencing

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  • Great defence! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Quasar1999 (520073) on Tuesday November 24, 2009 @08:11PM (#30220958) Journal
    If anything, it would help the jury decide to sentence him to death... obviously they're helping him by not letting him live, thus his horribly diseased brain won't make him suffer any longer... Really it's the humanitarian thing to do... :P
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday November 24, 2009 @08:26PM (#30221118)

    Capital punishment can encourage heinous crimes. If a suspect has already committed a crime that warrants capital punishment, then that suspect will have nothing to lose by committing more crimes.

  • by CannonballHead (842625) on Tuesday November 24, 2009 @08:27PM (#30221136)

    Let's assume, for a moment, that we have a murderer or rapist that does it because he's genetically wired to do it.

    What then? Put him in a "special" place and do genetic "testing" on him? That doesn't sound so nice.

    Let him go, because "he couldn't help it" and thus he is not culpable? Hm. That, from a protect-society standpoint, sounds incredibly stupid.

  • ... bear in mind that when you get to sentencing for a capital crime, the options are not "death penalty" or "10-20 years with probation and time off for good behavior". Rather, it's "death penalty" or "life without parole".

    You may now return to your previously-scheduled flame war.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday November 24, 2009 @08:50PM (#30221346)

    Short of the ability to alter the weather (Texas is a hot, humid, weather oppressive place to live), you're never going to turn Texas into North Dakota.

  • by LordNimon (85072) on Tuesday November 24, 2009 @08:56PM (#30221400)
    If a suspect has already committed a crime that warrants life in prison without parole, then that suspect will have something to lose by committing more crimes.
  • by digitalunity (19107) <digitalunity@yahoo. c o m> on Tuesday November 24, 2009 @08:57PM (#30221404) Homepage

    I could see that. Bank robbery goes wrong, accidentally kills someone, robber keeps killing because they've already crossed a line they didn't want to cross...

    Even if you're wrong, it certainly seems that capital punishment does little to reduce crimes we currently deem worthy of capital punishment.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday November 24, 2009 @09:01PM (#30221436)

    OK, so outlaw capital punishment. Then we have a new problem.

    Life imprisonment can encourage heinous crimes. If a suspect has already committed a crime that warrants life imprisonment, then that suspect will have nothing to lose by committing more crimes.

    See where this is going?

    I'm not in favor of capital punishment either, but your argument against it is specious.

  • Personally... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by jd (1658) <imipak@yaho o . com> on Tuesday November 24, 2009 @09:09PM (#30221500) Homepage Journal

    I regard the death penalty as somewhat childish and immature. "If X can't be alive, then... then... Neither Can Yoooooo! So nyah!" The idea that it gives closure to anything seemed to get a kick in the nuts with the Beltway Sniper's execution. If you don't get closure when the other person doesn't cry, then I'm not sure it's "closure" you're looking for. Try looking up "schoolyard bully".

    I'm also not keen on the way a lot of these trials are handled, especially the insanity stuff. A person being insane doesn't alter whether or not they did something, it merely alters their culpability. That should be obvious.

    Ergo, it follows that insanity should not be a plea in the trial phase but confined strictly to that phase which deals with culpability, the sentencing.

    However, I also disagree with this idea that there are two options - total all-out criminal insanity and total all-out sanity. For a start, it doesn't leave you with anywhere to put lawyers or politicians.

    I would far prefer to see a system in which sanity is regarded as a sliding scale and where sentencing allows the judge to split the time between punishment, treatment and rehabilitation (as and where appropriate) according to what produces the best outcome overall, rather than according to what gives the weenies in the press box a vicarious thrill.

    Obviously, if a person is going to be incarcerated forever, then rehabilitation to the point where the person would be safe outside is not terribly useful. On the other hand, it seems reasonable to assume that having them stew, rebel and resent is both less cost-effective and less mature than encouraging them to make effective use of their abilities.

    Just because someone is sealed off from society doesn't mean society can't benefit from their mind - there's probably plenty of intellectuals and artists behind bars.

    Ian Brady is probably one of the craziest crazies to be in Broadmoor, but his book on the way serial killers think, feel and act should certainly be at least browsed by psychiatrists and detectives for insights no rational mind could ever have produced. No matter how little value it really is, the chances are really good that it'll do more good than the British Police's DNA database and CCTV camera system.

    I'd rather let a hundred cold-blooded killers live in jail and receive at least some respect as a person if it meant that just one of those hundred produced a masterpiece of art or a book that had significance than have all hundred die purely for the viewing pleasure of Weekend Warriors.

    In a hundred years time, which makes the difference? Something that might only rarely advance humanity - but when it does, advance it a lot - or something that provides a momentary mental orgasm for a bunch of f'ed-up "witnesses" and some losers outside and that's it?

    I don't see why I should pay taxes for someone getting off on watching another die, when I could be paying taxes to give those in prison a chance to do something positive and worthwhile.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday November 24, 2009 @09:22PM (#30221560)

    although I'm not convinced that spending your entire life behind bars for a crime that you didn't commit is anymore humane than being executed for it.

    It's not, but if the mistake is discovered while you're still alive, something meaningful can be done about it (i.e. immediate release & compensation).

  • by radtea (464814) on Tuesday November 24, 2009 @09:25PM (#30221570)

    Texas has the second highest population of the US states and North Dakota is the second lowest.

    Assuming for some reason that population plays a role in murder rate--which seems a little weird to me--the more reasonable solution would be to break Texas up into lots of little states, if you really think that the number of people who happen to fall inside an accidental political boundary is determinative of the murder rate therein.

    If you're going to reify political boundaries in this way you're going to have to explain why the US as a whole doesn't have a higher murder rate than Texas: after all, it has a much higher population.

  • Re:Personally... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by dissy (172727) on Tuesday November 24, 2009 @09:25PM (#30221582)

    I regard the death penalty as somewhat childish and immature. "If X can't be alive, then... then... Neither Can Yoooooo! So nyah!" The idea that it gives closure to anything seemed to get a kick in the nuts with the Beltway Sniper's execution. If you don't get closure when the other person doesn't cry, then I'm not sure it's "closure" you're looking for. Try looking up "schoolyard bully".

    Well at least you fully understand the American justice system.

    It is one thing and one thing only: Revenge

    If the powers that be, and those that put them in power, even cared in the slightest about justice, stopping crime, and helping people, then our legal system would be turned on its head and look totally different.

    Unfortunately this is what most people in America want however. Not justice, just revenge. Not lack of crime, just to create more crime to dish out more suffering. It satisfies both the animal rage instincts as well as gives a false sense of superior morality.

  • by Locke2005 (849178) on Tuesday November 24, 2009 @09:35PM (#30221664)
    Incarceration is not for punishment or revenge; it serves 3 purposes to society:
    1) Deterrent
    2) Rehabilitation
    3) Preventing the criminal from re-offending, at least for the time period they are incarcerated.
    Of these, it can only be proven effective at accomplishing the 3rd purpose. People with a high probability of re-offending should be kept locked away indefinitely for the protection of others. Capital punishment is probably cheaper than keeping somebody in jail for the rest of their lives, but risking the execution of even 1 innocent person before they are exonerated is not a risk I'm willing to take. Finally, truly twisted criminals tend to not last very long in prison anyway; they are eventually given the Jeffery Dahlmer treatment where they are left alone with a lifer who hates them while the guards look the other way. Even cold blooded killers have no stomach for someone who rapes and kills little girls, and I probably wouldn't go out of my way to protect them from the rest of the prison population either.
  • by Shakrai (717556) on Tuesday November 24, 2009 @09:37PM (#30221674) Journal

    People will NEVER pay for the long term lockup of violent offenders

    Stop spending ~$43,000 [] per prisoner to house them in Club Fed and revert prison to what it should be: Three square meals and the chance to break big rocks into little rocks. Stop locking up non-violent druggies (you'll note that I was talking about violent crimes in my previous post) and use the free space/money to lock up violent criminals that actually pose a threat to the rest of us.

    A shoplifter deserves a shot at rehabilitation. An armed robber does not. Both sought unearned material gain -- but the latter was willing to threaten violence against his fellow human beings in order to obtain it. Once you demonstrate that you are willing to do that then I don't think you deserve to live among the rest of us. You are no better than a rapid dog and deserve to be treated accordingly.

  • by Thinboy00 (1190815) <thinboy00&gmail,com> on Tuesday November 24, 2009 @09:40PM (#30221692) Journal

    -1 Troll != -1 Disagree

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday November 24, 2009 @09:40PM (#30221698)

    The point is to extract the debt that is owed to society for such behavior.

    What in the name of hell is wrong with you? Prison is used for rehabilitation and/or to segregate dangerous elements, not to "extract the debt".

    • Prisons don't "extract debt", they COST money*. If it were about "extracting debt", they'd be closer to either paupers' prisons, or like slave camps (and although prisons do have workshops, they aren't turning a net profit - private prisons profit mainly by government contracts).
    • We're not barbarians (well, I'm not). Punishing people just to feel better about ourselves reeks of the sort of ignorance common in the middle ages and earlier.
    • it's called the Department of CORRECTIONS, not the Department of Extracting Debt.

    Now, keep in mind before anyone gets all huffy about how this conflicts with their opinion on death penalty or whatever, this thought is in no way incongruous with the death penalty or life imprisonment or anything like that - remember, segregating dangerous elements and discouraging other criminals** is still a large part of what imprisonment should accomplish. In fact, this stance (which punishment nuts might think of as "weak"/"soft") is actually tougher in cases such as TFA - although he does not deserve punishment (assuming the brain scan can be regarded as accurate), the point is not to punish but to rehabilitate where possible and segregate where it isn't - and therefore this would have the criminal in TFA imprisoned.

    *Yes, yes, prisons are managed by the government, and government wastes money like it's going out of fashion, and could never realistically be profitable, blah blah blah.

    ** You've argued that violent criminals are not deterred by punishment, but it's based an inherently flawed assumption - you cannot measure a negative; vis, you cannot measure how many people MIGHT have committed a crime but for the deterrent. You can compare to other similar jurisdictions opposing stances on the death penalty, but you cannot conclusively conclude that the reason for any differences in crime rate is the death penalty - there are far too many variables.

  • by Thinboy00 (1190815) <thinboy00&gmail,com> on Tuesday November 24, 2009 @09:44PM (#30221742) Journal

    Hell yeah []!

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday November 24, 2009 @09:51PM (#30221802)

    The thing about the life sentencing that is being reversed because of new evidence (in particular DNA evidence) is that the new evidence being used to show past mistakes is being used to prevent new ones.
    I agree 100% that our justice system is way screwed up, in many ways because it is penalizing victims while defending repeat offenders. It is making it harder and harder to legally defend yourself, although this trend is being reversed. In those cases where there is NO question of guilt (Mt Hood anyone....) I say pop em off and be done with it. Innocent until proven guilty, but I figure a dozen witnesses, video footage, and being caught on the scene are enough to prove guilt even without a jury. (Not talking only about Mt Hood, there are plenty of cases where guilt is well known and already proven, but we still spend God knows how much "defending" them)
    For the case at hand, I dont care if you were doped up, depressed, had a brain tumor, angry at your wife, were told by God or the monkeys in your closet, or just wanted to have fun. You did the crime, you pay for it. As someone earlier said, even knowning it was a mental condition, would it be humane to make him live the rest of his life as a crazy? Their victims are just as dead as if they were sane.

  • by AlgorithMan (937244) on Tuesday November 24, 2009 @10:00PM (#30221862) Homepage
    So, you still have the death penalty...
    fyi: the civilized world thinks you are bloodthirsty barbaric slaughterers... (which we also think for your gun-laws and your armed robbery of helpless countries)

    the human life is the highest good there is so nobody - NOBODY (including the state) has the right to decide that someone deserves to die - even if that guy killed a lot of people.

    I know this will cost me karma, but that can't stop me from telling the truth...
  • by Runaway1956 (1322357) * on Tuesday November 24, 2009 @10:12PM (#30221942) Homepage Journal

    Anyone who claims that our prisons are rehabilitative are totally out of touch with reality. It is at least as accurate to say that petty criminals who find their way to prison get the opportunity to learn new and better ways of committing crime.

    If we ever correct the serious disconnect between the idealists' vision of prison, and the reality of prison, then we MIGHT begin to correct the abortion we have today.

    The United States has one of the highest per capita incarceration rates in the world. Those cells are built, and kept filled, more to keep revenue flowing throughout government and society, than to "rehabilitate" anyone. The prison system is so lucrative, private corporations are getting into the act.

    Please, just drop the rehab crap. IF rehab is really a part of the prison system, it's so relatively unimportant that we can ignore it.

  • by Shakrai (717556) on Tuesday November 24, 2009 @10:19PM (#30221994) Journal

    which we also think for your gun-laws

    Sorry if our freedom is offensive to you.

    The MAFIAA is a bunch of mindless jerks who will be the first up against the wall when the revolution comes

    That's a pretty funny signature line for someone that claims to hate American gun-laws. How effective do you suppose the revolution is going to be without weapons in the hands of those who are revolting?

  • by shutdown -p now (807394) on Tuesday November 24, 2009 @10:38PM (#30222126) Journal

    There's one more point that just came to my mind, though it is, perhaps, somewhat U.S.-centric, and it may be my wrongful interpretation anyway as I'm not an American. If you start with the concept of inalienable rights, the famous "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness", then wouldn't any wrongful execution, being intentional deprivation of a person's life, violate his inalienable right? And therefore, unless you can guarantee with absolute certainty (meaning just that - 100% - not 99.9...%) that executions are never wrongful, death penalty as an institution is inherently in violation of the right to life?

    (Yes, I know that the phrase comes from the U.S. Declaration of Independence rather than Constitution, and therefore has no legal force. Nonetheless, if one subscribes to the notion of inalienable rights in the first place, they are inherently above laws.)

  • Re:Great defence! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by jamesh (87723) on Tuesday November 24, 2009 @11:00PM (#30222260)

    From a purely scientific point of view it does make some sense. The trouble is that you would be putting people in charge of who gets to breed and who doesn't, and we've already demonstrated that people are not capable of running a bank properly so imagine what's going to happen if you put them in charge of something like this... Once someone in power decides that pointing out flaws in the government is not a good trait to have, it all goes downhill really fast - there doesn't need to be a 'real' gene for it either, once the system is corrupt people can make up whatever they want.

    Also, have a look at some of the defects in some of the greatest people of our time. Einstein had a majorly lopsided brain etc. Obviously not necessarily genetic though.

  • Re:Great defence! (Score:3, Insightful)

    by PitaBred (632671) <slashdot.pitabred@dyndns@org> on Wednesday November 25, 2009 @01:47AM (#30223148) Homepage
    The unfortunate thing is that he spent 9 months and a week with his biological mother. Who knows what she ate and how much proper nutrition he got while developing, what drugs she did, how well she took care of herself. There's research showing that children start out crying in their native languages, which means they can be affected quite a bit by pre-natal environmental conditions. It's hard to separate DNA from "environment" when you really can't tell what the environment was for a large portion of his quite literally most formative time.
  • Re:Great defence! (Score:2, Insightful)

    by P0ltergeist333 (1473899) on Wednesday November 25, 2009 @01:47AM (#30223150)

    Nature vs nurture is an extremely old argument, not likely to be resolved either simply or easily. While I understand the reasoning behind your statements, I believe they falsely assume that your feelings of lust, etc. are exactly the same for you as they they would be for someone with a biological tendency towards such behaviors, and that your reactions to these feelings are exactly the same as someone with a biological tendency towards such behaviors. I believe these are unsupported assumptions and as such contain the fallacy of false cause.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 25, 2009 @05:16AM (#30223956)

    If you argue on that basis then incarceration, being deprivation of liberty, would also be excluded.

  • by SEE (7681) on Wednesday November 25, 2009 @05:52AM (#30224140) Homepage

    If you start with the concept of inalienable rights, the famous "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness", then wouldn't any wrongful execution, being intentional deprivation of a person's life, violate his inalienable right?

    Sure. But so would any wrongful imprisonment, being intentional deprivation of a person's liberty, violate his inalienable right. Wrongfully arresting the guy for the crime already is a violation of his inalienable rights by depriving him of his liberty. Demanding 100% perfection before any act that might deny an inalienable right means no law enforcement whatsoever.

    (The same type of problem undercuts the often-made "if it's wrong for an individual to do it, it's wrong for the state to do it" argument against the death penalty. Because the logic of that applies just as fully to the fact that it's not allowed for an individual to take somebody prisoner with force or the threat thereof, lock them in restraints, and imprison them behind bars.)

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