Sunday, November 24, 2013
Brain Science Seeps Into Trials and Guilty Pleas
More and more lawyers are arguing that some defendants deserve special consideration because they have brains that are immature or impaired, says Nita Farahany, a professor of law and philosophy at Duke University, reported National Public Radio.
About 5 percent of murder trials now involve some neuroscience, Farahany says. "There's a steady increase of defendants seeking to introduce neuroscience to try to reduce the extent to which they're responsible or the extent to which they're punished for a crime," she says.
Farahany was a featured speaker at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego this week. Also featured were several brain scientists who are uncomfortable with the way courts are using brain research.
When lawyers turn to neuroscience, often what's at issue is a defendant's competency, Farahany told NPR. So a defense lawyer might argue that "you weren't competent to have pled guilty because of some sort of brain injury," she says, or that you weren't competent to have confessed to a police officer after being arrested.
The approach has been most successful with cases involving teenagers, Farahany says.
"It seems like judges are particularly enamored with the adolescent brain science," she says. "Large pieces of their opinions are dedicated to citing the neuroscientific studies, talking about brain development, and using that as a justification for treating juveniles differently."
In one recent drug possession case, Farahany told NPR, lawyers argued that a young man's statement to police couldn't be used even though he'd agreed to talk. His lawyers pointed to studies showing that adolescent brains are especially vulnerable to coercion.
"And it worked," Farahany says. "The prosecution had to basically start over in developing evidence against the juvenile because they couldn't use his own statements against him."
So judges and juries are being swayed by studies showing that adolescent brains don't function the same way adult brains do. One study like that was presented at the neuroscience meeting by Kristina Caudle, a neuroscientist at Weill Cornell Medical College. The study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, used a technology called functional MRI to look at how the brains of people from 6 to 29 reacted to a threat.
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