Neuroscience in Court

After our discussion last night of neuroscience and the law, I did some of my own digging in the news. The most interesting article I found is about Domenico Mattiello, a pediatrician in Italy who now faces pedophilia charges. He was a pediatrician for 30 years before being accused of abusing his young patients. Mattiello’s lawyers intend to introduce evidence and expert witness testimony that he has a 4 centimeter brain tumor that is putting pressure on his brain and causing altered behavior. This evidence is persuasive because the doctor acted normally for nearly 30 years and then went through a radical behavioral change. However, the use of this science leads to many questions.

The use of neuroscience in criminal proceedings raises questions about the goal of punishment and where to draw the line. In my opinion, the brain tumor scenario is a simpler matter to introduce into evidence than the argument that someone is not culpable because they have unusual responses to stimuli in a functional MRI. Pressure on the brain causing altered behavior is a relatively simple concept (in comparison with other neuroscience concepts) for jurors to grasp and the connection between the pressure and behavior is logical. However, introducing evidence of a brain function abnormality or a genetic predisposition towards violence is taking things too far at this point in time. Neuroscience is not yet conclusive enough to be used in that context. As the article suggests, complex and relatively new neuroscience is not ready for use in the courtroom.

The link to the article about neuroscience and the law is http://www.foxnews.com/health/2012/08/29/neuroscience-in-court-is-brain-to-blame-for-committing-crimes/.

On a side note, I also found an interesting article on how dogs’ brains may actually be hardwired to empathize with humans. The link to that article is http://news.discovery.com/animals/dogs-empathy-humans-120831.html.

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5 thoughts on “Neuroscience in Court

  1. I imagine that brain function is often closely intertwined with brain structure. To the extent that this is the case, where do you think the line should be drawn? And are you suggesting a limitation on what sort of neuroscientific information should be allowed into evidence or how jurors or fact-finder judges should view the evidence? Further is your view of this issue the same as Jordan’s, which he alludes to in his post “His Brain Made Him Do It”?

  2. From a reading of his post, I do believe that Jordan and I have similar views to some extent.

    The question of where to draw the line on how brain structure affects functionality with respect to criminal behavior is a tricky one. My first thought would be to separate out cases that involved mentally affected defendants into three categories: first would be people like the Italian pediatrician with a “normal” brain that develop a curable ailment, second would be those with a previously undiagnosed but curable condition, and third would be those with an incurable condition. These categories could be considered as a factor when determining an appropriate sentence. I do not think those factors should play into a finding of guilt or innocence as much as into sentencing. For those with a curable condition the appropriate punishment may be something akin to a reduced sentence of probation or community service contingent on successful treatment of the neurological condition, and individuals with an incurable condition may belong in a mental institution rather than in prison.

    I do think that the type of neuroscientific evidence that is allowed should be limited, but the limits would need to progress as the science progresses. I do not have a problem with neuroscientific evidence being used in a courtroom, but until the science is well-tested, well-established, and well-understood in the scientific community it probably does not belong in criminal law. I believe this simply because many aspects of neuroscience are relatively new and it would be easy for the defense in a case to show what looked like conclusive evidence of a brain abnormality to a jury when in reality the evidence isn’t so clear-cut.

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