Neuroscience Has An Important (But Complicated) Place In The Courtroom

As our understanding of the brain advances, neuroscience is coming to hold an increasingly important but complicated place in the courtroom.

In more than 1,500 court cases in the U.S. between 2007 and 2012, judicial opinions were influenced by brain science evidence — double the amount from the five years earlier. Of those cases, 40 percent were for capital murder.

For instance, brain imaging is often used to argue for a lesser sentence, to suggest that the defendant was unable to control his or her actions and therefore should not be held fully accountable. On the other hand, this evidence can also be used to suggest that a person is aggressive by nature and a threat to society.

Consider the following real-life case: 16-year-old Christopher Tiegreen was a friendly, normal high school student until he got into a near-fatal car collision in 2001 that caused severe head injuries. After Tiegreen emerged from his coma, those around him said that he became violent and unpredictable. About eight years later, he was charged for attacking a woman and her 20-month-old son, The Athens-Banner Herald newspaper reported.

During Tiegreen’s trial, his lawyer argued that he was mentally incompetent and a neuropsychologist testified that Tiegreen suffered severe brain impairment, according to the American Bar Association. The jury, however, declared Tiegreen competent.

“I thought the legal system had … better sense,” Tiegreen’s mother Laura Howell, then a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology, told ABA. “There’s a big crack that people with brain injuries fall into. It’s so narrow in the legal sense that it doesn’t leave room for people like Christopher.”

It’s not uncommon for traumatic brain injury, which is often the result of car accidents or sports injuries, to result in aggression. Some research suggests, —> Read More