Adam Shniderman, a criminal justice researcher at Texas Christian University, has been studying the role of neuroscience in the court system for several years now. He explains that neurological data and explanations don’t easily translate into the world of lawyers and legal text. Inverse spoke with Shniderman to learn more about how neuroscience is used in today’s insanity defenses, and whether this is likely to change as the technology used to observe the brain gets better and better.
Can you give me a quick overview of how the role of neuroscience in the courts, has changed over the years? Especially in the last few decades with new advances in technology.
Obviously, [neuroscientific evidence] has become more widely used as brain-scanning technology has gotten better. Some of the scanning technology we use now, like functional MRI that measures blood oxygenation as a proxy for neurological activity, is relatively new within the last 20 years or so. The nature of brain scanning has changed, but the knowledge that the brain influences someone’s actions is not new.
I don’t know how familiar you are in the case of Charles Whitman. He was the Texas Belltower shooter in 1966 who killed over a dozen people on the campus of University of Texas, Austin, after killing his mother. He sort of intuitively knew that something had gone wrong with him, so he asked in his suicide note that his brain be examined during his autopsy for irregularities. They actually found out that he had a tumor pressing on his frontal lobe, which may have been a significant cause in this aberrant behavior.
Neuroscience certainly played a growing role in courtrooms from then on. There was a big 2007 New York Times Magazine article called, “The Brain on the Stand,” that got people very interested in the notion that the brain would radically change the way criminal cases are tried; that it would radically change the conception of why people do what they do.
But, you tend to find that this neuroscience is coupled with the study of psychopathy, and people aren’t really sympathetic to psychopaths.
That makes sense.
The other, bigger problem is that the insanity defense isn’t sort of what you might think of colloquially as insane. In most jurisdictions, it has to do with the knowledge of what’s right versus wrong. So if you knew what you did was right or wrong at the time you did it, you aren’t legally insane. So you tend to find that the very rare case where it is successful is like a paranoid schizophrenic who is completely in the state of delusion, and didn’t know it was wrong because they thought they were killing ants, not people.
It must be extremely difficult to prove that sort of state of mind.
The insanity defense has little to do with the ability to sort of control your actions. We still haven’t seen really much of an effect of neuroscience on the insanity defense — in part because the insanity defense is rarely offered and even more rarely successful. Contrary to the popular myth that people plead insanity all the time and then it works and they’re back out on the streets, it’s just rarely offered because criminals don’t really want to be labeled insane. And juries, because of the potential misconception that you get to walk away and there’s no repercussions for people who are deemed legally insane, very rarely find anyone legally insane. So neuroscience has had less of an impact directly in the insanity defense.
Insanity plays a bigger role in sentencing, rather than convicting. The insanity defense is more used to mitigate punishment rather than exculpation via insanity.
Source: Inverse, Neel V. Patel, September 10, 2015
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