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The Courts Science

Brain Scans Used In Murder Sentencing 328

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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  • Capital Punishment (Score:3, Interesting)

    by RichardJenkins ( 1362463 ) on Tuesday November 24, 2009 @08:21PM (#30221060)
    Sure stops re-offending, not sure about a deterrent effect but I could buy it. I just don't think I have the stomach for it.
  • by reporter ( 666905 ) on Tuesday November 24, 2009 @08:22PM (#30221080) Homepage
    In the United States, political correctness has concluded that all human behavior (in a "normal" person) is due to nurture and free will. To even hint that human behavior is due, in part, to genetics is taboo: it quickly leads to the conclusion that different races and ethnic groups can have different inclinations. This conclusion is forbidden.

    So, brain scans of a criminal defendant will not carry any weight. If his environment (e. g., an abusive childhood) did not cause him to commit the crime, then he must have done it out of his own free will. Since he "freely and deliberately" committed the crime, then he shall be punished to the fullest extent of the law.

    That is how American justice works. How does justice work in Europe?

  • by reverseengineer ( 580922 ) on Tuesday November 24, 2009 @08:24PM (#30221096)
    I'm curious to see how this will turn out in terms of practice of the death penalty in Illinois. There has been a moratorium on executions since 1999- Illinois still has a "death row," as well as the facilities for lethal injections, but hasn't actually executed prisoners in some time.
  • by Shakrai ( 717556 ) on Tuesday November 24, 2009 @09:02PM (#30221444) Journal

    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.

    I'm not convinced that most violent criminals are worried about what they have to lose. Take armed robbery for instance. People who hold up convenience stores rarely walk away with more than $100. For that marginal gain they are risking 10 to 20 years of their freedom, more if they used a weapon in the commission of their crime. No sane person could look at the risk to reward ratio of armed robbery and conclude that it's a worthwhile endeavor -- yet people still engage in such behavior.

    I don't think the point of prison and/or the death penalty is to deter crime. Clearly neither one is effective at doing so. The point is to extract the debt that is owed to society for such behavior. The only method of payment for such debt is to require that you forfeit some of your limited time on this planet back to society.

    In the case of the death penalty, if your crimes are heinous enough (treason, murder, kidnapping and rape should all qualify IMHO) then I don't see any problems with society putting you out of our collective misery. My only issue with the death penalty is the fact that no justice system is 100% perfect, 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.

  • by MarkvW ( 1037596 ) on Tuesday November 24, 2009 @09:02PM (#30221452)

    "We wouldn't need capital punishment if we'd lock violent criminals up for the rest of their miserable lives. The vast majority of first-time murderers already had violent criminal records. Seems to me that if we kept them behind bars where they belong that we'd have a much lower murder rate."

    Nonsense. Complete and utter nonsense. Arguments like this are made by politicians only for the purpose of attracting stupid people.

    It is nonsense because it will never, ever happen. The same people who cry out for prisons and law and order also scream for no new taxes. People will NEVER pay for the long term lockup of violent offenders. Hell, the USA already has one of the highest imprisonment rates among Western countries. The law and order folks will balk when it comes time to settle up the bill for increased imprisonment. It's all pure jive talk.

    Get real.

  • by nomadic ( 141991 ) <.moc.liamg. .ta. .dlrowcidamon.> on Tuesday November 24, 2009 @09:05PM (#30221472) Homepage
    Actually, and I say this as a liberal lawyer who thinks prison should be rehabilitative, there is strong evidence to suggest that the plummeting murder rates in the latter half of the 90s were a result of longer prison sentences of violent offenders.
  • Re:Great defence! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Tuesday November 24, 2009 @09:46PM (#30221764) Journal
    There are some specific cases where brain abnormality evidence seems like it would be very valuable to the defendant. This guy [] for instance. Initially pretty normal. Gradually develops increasingly problematic sexual misbehavior. Just before being sent to jail, goes to the ER with a headache and neurological symptoms. They MRI him and chop out a huge tumor pressing on his frontal lobe. Sexual misbehavior stops.

    Some time later, it starts up again. They check, and the tumor has partially regrown. Tumor is again resected, and patient is again fine.

    In a case like that, there seems to be a compelling argument to be made that the defendant's behavior is a medical problem rather than a criminal one(and a treatable medical problem, not an "well, enjoy the secure ward for the rest of your life" medical problem). If, though, your plea is basically "But, but, this MRI shows exactly the part of my brain that makes me a violent shitbag..." That seems fairly useless to you(though it might be helpful in the long term, if it helps us figure out how to stop producing people like you). Obviously, with sufficient scientific knowledge, it will be possible to identify the anatomic basis of your behavior. So what?
  • by Fantastic Lad ( 198284 ) on Tuesday November 24, 2009 @09:56PM (#30221824)

    I don't care to waste time on the three endless debates being revisited here. (Well, sort of revisited. It's such an old and tired set of problems that nobody here is even giving a full effort). Capital punishment, nature v.s. nurture, and the morality of punishing a natural-born killer.

    Don't care. None of that will be solved here or today.

    What I AM interested in is the use of medical technology to detect psychopathy in people. We have the technology right now. I want to see a reliable and open system of testing introduced so that we can filter people who are climbing power ladders. -We could have avoided the whole last ten years of bloodshed and economic ruin if we had a simple testing system in place for recognizing psychopaths. What we do with them after this is fodder for those endless debates, and that's fine. History will sort it out. I just think it would be nice if we stopped giving leadership roles to reptiles. You know, so we can stop living in a world where corruption and mass-murder are considered normal? That'd sure be nice.

    I want to see this happen. I want to see this happen. I want to see this happen. It's my intention to live in a world where everybody wakes up.


  • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Tuesday November 24, 2009 @09:57PM (#30221836) Journal
    Mistakes are an issue(and they aren't just mistakes, some of the "prosecutorial misconduct" that gets pulled is basically judicial murder).

    What I would be very interested to see studied, though, is whether getting the death penalty, because of its high profile and controversial nature, actually improves the quality of representation, access to appeals, and the like. The ideal comparison would be between otherwise similar groups of inmates, some of whom got death, and some of whom got life or various long terms.

    Does being on death row attract the attention of more useful advocates or greater judicial scrutiny than does a life sentence or very long fixed term?
  • by my $anity 0 ( 917519 ) on Tuesday November 24, 2009 @10:10PM (#30221922)
    It is more expensive in our society to dole out capital punishment as opposed to life inprisonment. This is due to the lengths which this drags out the appeals process. In order to be more certain innocent people aren't killed, we spend more to make sure we can kill the guilty. In a society where we don't care about the possibility of innocence, execution costs a bullet. Thankfully, we live in a society that attempts to be free and fair, but this means that capital punishment stops making sense.
  • by hazem ( 472289 ) on Tuesday November 24, 2009 @10:13PM (#30221946) Journal

    I was just reading Freakonomics and they make the case that part of that decline was also because of Row vs. Wade and the greater availability of abortion. They say the evidence supports the idea that Row vs. Wade made abortion available to women in poverty and that their aborted children were among the group that would have been most likely to become violent criminals. They do quite a few comparisons between states that legalized abortion at different times and other factors to show this.

    I'm not sure I accept it, but it's an interesting argument.

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

    by hairyfeet ( 841228 ) <bassbeast1968 AT gmail DOT com> on Tuesday November 24, 2009 @11:01PM (#30222264) Journal

    You know, I always thought is was how a person was raised, and not their DNA, that made them who they were, that is, until it happened in my own family.

    My two cousins, lets call them Rick and Don, were raised exactly the same way, in fact until Rick turned 16 and everything came out we all thought they were biological brothers. It turned out my Aunt and Uncle had been told when they lived in Texas they couldn't have kids, and therefor adopted Rick at less than a week old, naturally boom a year later Don is born. They were very "all children are gifts from God" and spending many a night in their home and living down the street from them I can attest they never treated either kid differently from the other. But before Rick was even 12 there were problems-torturing animals, stealing, vicious behavior, bullying, etc. Finally they managed to get the court records unsealed and ....damn.

    It turned out Rick's mom was a whore who was doing 10-20 for cutting up a John over a fee with a razor, and his dad was her pimp who I swear was a fricking axe murderer! No shit, they guy got into an argument over cash, went to his truck, got an axe and chopped the guy into little pieces and got life without parole. Now Rick is locked up in the same prison where his biological dad died, charged as a habitual offender he most likely will never get out again. My aunt and uncle spent huge sums of money trying to help him, therapy, drugs, etc all to no avail. Don is about as boring as you can get, I don't think he or his wife have ever gotten so much as a traffic ticket.

    So I really have to wonder if there is something in the DNA. My aunt looked up his biological family and both sides were nothing but violence-rapes,beatings, killings, etc as far back as she could find.And as I said both boys were raised side by side, same house, food, treatment, etc, in a house filled with love and caring parents. So maybe there is something to the "bad gene" idea, who knows. Maybe we can isolate the genes and hopefully get rid of them. But watching it unfold in my own family killed the whole "it is just the environment they are raised in" BS for me. Because they got Rick straight from the hospital and he had never been exposed to his family, nor would he or any of us even known they existed if things hadn't gone so wrong.

  • by mathx314 ( 1365325 ) on Tuesday November 24, 2009 @11:02PM (#30222274)
    Honest question: suppose you're convicted of a crime you didn't commit, with no chance of being exonerated. You get to choose between spending the rest of your life in prison or being executed. Which would you choose? I think that I personally would probably prefer dying over having to spend the rest of my life locked up with actual criminals for a crime I didn't commit.
  • Re:Great defence! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by fractoid ( 1076465 ) on Tuesday November 24, 2009 @11:10PM (#30222338) Homepage
    Is it, though? Now we're getting into the philosophy of punishment. There are three basic motivations that I can see for punishing someone for a crime (as distinct from forcing them to make reparations):
    • To reduce the likelihood of re-offending (especially applies to incarceration).
    • To serve as an example, to deter others from perpetrating the same offense
    • Revenge

    Imagine a kiddy fiddler of the worst order. He's molested scores of children, caused untold harm to them, etc. Now imagine that, on the day that he's caught, they can for whatever reason clinically prove that he's 'cured' and would be constitutionally unable to re-offend. Should he go free? I imagine the response would be a universal and emphatic "no, of course not!" The only motive for incarcerating or executing him at this point would be revenge.

  • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Tuesday November 24, 2009 @11:21PM (#30222412)

    It's worse than that, too "hard" punishment for a "minor" crime can push people towards committing worse crimes when the difference in sentence isn't too big. A "three strikes" law in a country without a death penalty would basically mean that you should always kill the witnesses when you've been in jail two times and commit another crime, because you will be sentenced for life if you get caught because it's your third time anyway and murder (sans death penalty) means life anyway.

    So why not kill the people you rob? It's only logical to do it, simply to reduce the probability that the police gets a lead.

  • Re:Great defence! (Score:4, Interesting)

    by hairyfeet ( 841228 ) <bassbeast1968 AT gmail DOT com> on Wednesday November 25, 2009 @04:07AM (#30223640) Journal

    Actually this is one question I know the answer to-It was the early 70s and she spent pretty much all of her pregnancy handcuffed to a bed, since she was in the pen over the whole "cutting the guy's face all to shit" with a razor thing. So she couldn't have been more than a month or so along when she ended up in prison, since of course cutting a guy is a parole violation that tends to get your ass thrown back in pretty quick. From what I understand they gave vitamins and decent food to pregnant women in the joint, or so I have heard. And I don't think she'd be able to score dope too well in a prison maternity ward. He was born in the pen and then taken to the hospital where my aunt got him.

    I know all this because my aunt damned near worked herself into the ground trying to find something that would help Rick. She found out everything she possibly could about every single relative of his she could find hoping to find something they could treat, and spent many a night crying on my mom's shoulder. Unfortunately there isn't exactly a treatment for "mean muthafucka" which is pretty much what his biological family was. Wife beaters, killers, hell I bet you could probably go back 100 years with that family tree and not find a single one that wasn't scummy. Sad but true. With Rick there was pretty much ZERO impulse control. I mean none, zip zero zilch. No empathy or remorse either.

    So while he may be a member of my family I say the best thing society could do is NEVER let that dude breathe a breath of free air again. Because if you let him out he would be robbing, beating, whatever probably before he even got 20 miles down the road. Maybe study him and try to figure out what in his DNA creates somebody like that, because we sure as hell don't want a bunch of him running loose. But from what I was told there pretty much wasn't a single member of that family without a rap sheet as long as your arm. Really nice bunch, huh?

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

    by big_paul76 ( 1123489 ) on Wednesday November 25, 2009 @04:50AM (#30223820)

    Stephen J. Gould said something about how any evidence that suggests nurture over nature, could usually be used just as well to suggest a nature over nurture.

    It turns out that nature vs nurture is a false dichotomy. For example, there have been genes identified in rats that are ONLY turned on by specific maternal behaviors.

    So genes matter, but environment is at least as important. Without the environment that "turns on" a gene, nothing happens.

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

    by hairyfeet ( 841228 ) <bassbeast1968 AT gmail DOT com> on Wednesday November 25, 2009 @09:00AM (#30224982) Journal

    I think I may be able to help you "see" how it might not be as cut and dried as you make it, from an example of one of Rick's earlier "mishaps". One day I got to listen to him and his parents fight (he was about 12 IIRC) over an incident earlier that day. Apparently he had walked around a corner and bumped a neighbor's cat, which had become startled and scratched him. He (very calmly from what I remember) reached down, picked up the neighbor's cat, and bashed its head against a tree in a single blow powerful enough to splatter its brains all over the tree.

    Now the "funny" part, which I always remember about the incident, is nobody was ever able to explain why he shouldn't do that in a way he could understand. To him it was very logical, cat scratched him, kill the cat, cat won't scratch him no more. He simply couldn't understand why everyone made a big deal about that, or why he should care that the neighbor loved the cat, or anything of the sort. His mind simply didn't work that way. No empathy, no feelings for others, no concept of how his actions would affect others or have repercussions, no concept at all of these things. It was like trying to explain to an alien what it was like to live as a human being-he could understand the words, but they simply didn't have any meaning to him. You might as well have been speaking German for all he understood.

    And THAT is what makes him different from you, me, and a good portion of the planet. You talk about having "self control" but if you simply don't understand WHY you should have self control then really, how good would your self control be? Some call it a soul, some a conscience, whatever it is that makes a person see that other living beings have value and that feelings other than you own at THAT moment have meaning and are just as real, whatever that part was, he just didn't have it. So I don't see how you could say it is a cop out, although I could see how some might try to abuse it, but it really wouldn't be hard to look at a history of someone like Rick and see a pattern. For him the only real person is him. Only his emotions are valid, the concept of caring about how others feel is simply an alien thought process to him.

    And finally to show this wasn't some "act" that he used only when it was in his favor, he once flipped a bug convertible and broke his neck. Rather than wait for help he crawled out of the wreck held his head up by pulling his hair with his hand and walked to the dope dealer's house, who had the good sense to call an ambulance. Why did he do that? Because he wanted some dope. It never occurred to him that he could be paralyzed, or that by doing so he was causing damage that ended up with him being in a halo for twice as long as it otherwise would have been, to him crawling out and walking to where the dope was with a broken neck was just as logical as could be. That was just how he brain worked.

  • Re:Great defence! (Score:2, Interesting)

    by mcgrew ( 92797 ) * on Wednesday November 25, 2009 @10:21AM (#30225586) Homepage Journal

    That's the flip side of what I've been saying about bleeding heart conservatives who are adamantly for the death penalty. When I die it will most likely be horrible - from heart disease, cancer (a truly horrible way to die,) [] alsheimers (shudder), ALS, accident... Meanwhile someone who rapes and tortures a child to death is painlessly "put to sleep" like a beloved pet.

    I say keep him locked up for life, let him think about what he's done, not knowing when or how he's going to die. I don't mind my tax money going for keeping murderers locked up.

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

    by mcgrew ( 92797 ) * on Wednesday November 25, 2009 @11:19AM (#30226198) Homepage Journal

    But that doesn't explain Amy and Tami, who I mentioned in my slashdot journal yesterday. Here's the relevant part (no need to read the whole journal)

    The difference between Amy and Tami are striking. Tami's about ten years older than Amy, who was raised under horrible conditions; she was the result of two teenagers tripping on acid in the snow on high school property. She was shuffled from one foster home to another; she's told me some terrible horror stories, which she overcame, went to college and got a nursing degree and license. She lost her license and children after her ex-husband beat her so badly he went to prison for felony assault and she started drinking, and is vainly trying to get off the booze and back to work.

    Tami was brought up in a rich family who owned show horses. I've seen photos of her as a teenager riding the horses at state fairs. She went on to become a liar and a thief and a parasite.

    Amy's mother is a schitzophrenic homeless drug addict, her biological father died a couple of years ago from MSRA. From what she's said, he was as bad off as her mother. Aside from her alcohol problem and clinical depression, Amy's completely normal.

The wages of sin are high but you get your money's worth.