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Brain Imaging and Criminal Law

by Astrid Fiano, DOTmed News Writer | May 04, 2009

Current brain science cannot predict that an individual will commit a crime at a particular point in time, but it can predict behavior; for instance, predicting that a substance abuse addict will obtain drugs within a short time; or that a diagnosed psychopath may commit a crime within five years, based on statistics. Professor Sinnott-Armstrong notes that the use of brain imaging in forensics raises a question of ethics - whether it is fair for a society to penalize a person (for instance, in denying parole) because his life is severely challenged due to a brain disorder. Right now there are laws that already punish for past behavior - the "three strikes" laws, which were implemented because the lawmakers felt that persons who committed three felonies are particularly dangerous and will commit violent crimes again - but those are predictions that are not based on scientific principles. Part of the work in the Project is to use science for better methods of determining behavior. The group of participants is diverse in terms of background and views on the moral and ethical questions, including lawyers and psychologists, who use their expertise in hopes that their work will lead to policies both useful and fair.

Project Goals

Dr. Michael Gazzaniga, Director of the Project, also expanded upon the work of the Project for DOTmed. Dr. Gazzaniga explained that the Project hopes to accomplish significant research to aid those involved in the criminal justice system to better understand criminal behavior.

Dr. Gazzaniga explained that the Project is divided into two research networks. One is focused on the current application of neuroscience to law and in university settings. This is called the Network on Legal Decision Making. Through that network, researchers are conducting studies on prisoners, especially psychopaths, to test their moral reasoning. Dr. Gazzaniga also mentions that Dr. Scott Grafton, at UCSB, is preparing to utilize pattern classifiers to see if there are differences in the brain that can be recognized in psychopaths. Other projects are also moving forward. Dr. Gazzaniga indicates that research is being conducted into whether the categories of guilt and moral responsibility in the law match evolved, human categories of blame. The role of lie detection - especially through fMRI scanning - is being investigated. Finally, the Project is seeking to understand and reduce bias in jurors. All of these are described by Gazzaniga as "pilot projects" intended to test whether and to what degree neuroscience can inform the law.