Can Neuroscience Explain Behavior in a Court of Law?In many cases, we think of mental incompetence as something that is brought into question by future heirs who don’t wish to wait for an older relative to pass on. This conclusion is probably the result of TV programs that guide us through court cases where unscrupulous heirs try to get their older relatives declared unstable or incapable of managing their own finances so that they access the older person’s wealth. However, this is not the only time that a person’s competence could be brought into question.

In fact, most of us have seen documentaries or true crime movies where the mental competence of a suspect, victim, or witness has come into question. In such programs, the behavior of the person is questioned and, in what I call “psychobabble,” this witnessed behavior is used to discredit the testimony of the person making the statement or disposition. In my previous experience, I had always believed that a person should be held responsible for their actions and shouldn’t be allowed to use the “I didn’t have any toys when I was little,” type of defense.

Today, however, with the introduction of MRIs and DNA testing, mental disorders can be easily diagnosed and the results admitted as evidence in a court of law. These, along with a new kid on the block called neuroscience, are challenging the opinion that society has held for years about mental disorders and how they should be handled in terms of crime and punishment.

One example of the need for this refocusing of public thought is seen in the case of a well-respected pediatrician. This doctor, whose practice spanned 30 years, had always been highly regarded by both parents and patients. So people were understandably shocked when the doctor was arrested for sexual advances toward little girls.

In this case, the defense attorney is going to argue that the doctor was not responsible for his unprecedented behavior due to the fact that there is established brain damage. They will not argue that the events never occurred, but rather request leniency due to the now explainable cause for the change in character. In their defense presentation, attorneys plan to summon experts in the field of neuroscience who will present evidence that the defendant has a small tumor growing at the base of his brain. It is to be surmised, then, that this tumor could explain why an otherwise normal person would suddenly develop such uncharacteristic changes in his behavior. Therefore, when the jury is posed with this evidence, it will then be up to them to decide if they will support the lawyer’s request for leniency, sentence the good doctor for his crimes, or acquit him.

This case is just one of many that are currently being presented around the United States and around the world as lawyers attempt to challenge the traditional thinking that brain disorders have no effect on resultant behavior.

While the above case seems pretty straightforward to me, let’s take the theory a step further. In a study conducted at the University of Utah, a man was sentenced to death after robbing a pizza joint and killing the manager of the restaurant. At the trial, the suspect’s attorney introduced scientific evidence indicating that the defendant had a flawed gene that was responsible for his violent behavior.

To test their theory, researchers who believed that flawed genes could change the outcome of a trial introduced the above case to a research panel of judges. The variable in the study was the admission of the flawed gene concept. To do this, they presented one-half of the judges with the theory that the flawed gene could result in violent behavior, but failed to give that information to the other half of the of the sitting judges.

Surprisingly, the study concluded that there was little difference between the finding of the two set of judges. After conferring, it was found that the panels both felt that the suspect deserved to go to prison and suggested only a one-year differential in the recommended prison time to be served. Given that, one could conclude that the judges were not swayed by the scientific evidence, perhaps believing it was just another ploy by the defense to excuse the behavior of their client. With those results in mind, I can’t help but wonder how a jury would perceive these claims if they were presented to them.

Here, I have presented two varying cases. One of these I would validate due to its neurological findings, while the other sounds like a defense attorney’s visions of what his fee is going to buy him. However, in my opinion, there is one other issue that will also pose a problem in a court of law. That issue is the average juror. While here in the United States we have a legal right to have our case heard before a jury of our peers, how qualified are these individuals? For example, let us take a look at the civil case between Apple and Samsung. In this case, one glaring point of interest keeps popping to the surface: Can the average juror understand the complexities involved in determining the legalities of patents and violations of said patents that may have occurred? These, I agree, are technical issues that the average citizen has no reason to understand, but given this, is the average citizen capable of understanding the complicated fields of neuroscience and neuro pathways?

So, if it is patents or neuroscience, I believe that these same concerns could become a subject for debate. How can you justify a brain defense to the family of a child who has been tortured and murdered? How can a jury find a person not guilty by reason of a genetic flaw after he / she has subjected a small child to sexual abuse? Would a jury of one’s peers be able to separate the harsh realities of the crime from a physical problem that may have an affect on one’s brain?

What do you think? If you were on a jury, would your decision be swayed if evidence was presented that the defendant suffered from a physical brain disease or injury?

Comments welcome.

Source: Trade Arabia

Image via Project Gutenberg