Grant Supports Law, Neuroscience Exploration

Brain imaging is just one of many new scientific tools pressed into service in criminal law cases. The MacArthur Foundation Law and Neuroscience Project is examining how neuroscience breakthroughs may affect the application of the law. (brain scan courtesy UCSB Sage Center for the Study of the Mind)

Brain imaging is just one of many new scientific tools pressed into service in criminal law cases. The MacArthur Foundation Law and Neuroscience Project is examining how neuroscience breakthroughs may affect the application of the law. (brain scan courtesy UCSB Sage Center for the Study of the Mind)

In 2001, a Houston housewife named Andrea Yates systematically drowned her five young children in the bathtub and then calmly called her husband to report what she had done. By the time he arrived home, police were already on the scene and had discovered the small bodies, four laid out on her bed and one still in the bathtub.

Yates had been under treatment for extreme postpartum depression and psychosis for years, and while her attorneys argued she was not guilty by reason of insanity, a jury convicted her of capital murder in 2002 and sentenced her to life in prison. Four years later, her conviction was overturned on appeal. She has been in a mental health facility ever since.

The Yates case is a classic example of where the law and a scientific understanding of diminished capacity may be in dispute. A new program based at UCSB is bringing science and the law together for the first time to better understand how to treat cases like Yates’.

The MacArthur Foundation Law and Neuroscience Project, funded with a $10 million grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, is led by UCSB neuroscientist Michael S. Gazzaniga and involves dozens of neuroscientists, legal scholars, jurists and philosophers at more than two dozen leading universities across the country. Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is honorary chair of the project.

Gazzaniga, who also directs UCSB’s SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind, says: “This effort will integrate new developments in neuroscience into the U.S. legal system.”

Under the project, scholars and legal experts will examine four main areas in which the law and neuroscience intersect: criminal responsibility, prediction, the use of neuroscience as evidence, and decisions concerning punishment. Each research program grouped under these four focus areas will be led by at least one neuroscientist and one legal expert. The research programs will review current research, identify gaps in knowledge and understanding, and conduct behavioral and neuroscientific research aimed at improving law, policy and legal proceedings.

The project also includes an outreach and education component, whereby the researchers will provide guidance and suggestions to judges and attorneys concerning scientific evidence.  Further, the project is planning to release position papers on issues such as lie detection and the introduction or imposition of limitations on the use of neuroscience in the courtroom.

“Neuroscientific evidence has already been used to persuade jurors in sentencing decisions, and courts have admitted brain-imaging evidence during criminal trials to support pleas of insanity,” Gazzaniga explains. “Without a solid, mutual understanding of each others’ fields, lawyers and judges cannot respond in an informed way to developments in neuroscience, and scientists cannot properly advise lawyers or recognize the legal relevance of their current and future research.”

In fact, in June 2008, India became the first country to convict someone of a crime based on a brain scan. Prosecutors, using an EEG, or electroencephalogram, convinced a jury that a woman had killed her former fiancé. The scan purportedly is able to distinguish between people’s memories of events they witnessed and deeds they actually committed. While some experts believe it can make the criminal justice system more accurate and fair, opponents fear it will invade privacy or skew notions of personal responsibility.

All the more reason for this project, Gazzaniga says.

“If researchers can provide guidance and information to the legal community that result in a fairer and more accurate legal system, all of society benefits,” Gazzaniga says.

Project co-director Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, professor of philosophy and Hardy Professor of Legal Studies at Dartmouth, adds: “The U.S. legal system incorporates assumptions about behavior that, in some cases, are centuries old and based on common sense and culture.

“Those assumptions affect you whether you’re a defendant, a victim of crime, a judge, a prospective juror, or a community resident. For example, the legal system assumes that people make deliberate choices and what we choose determines what we do. However, neuroscience indicates that our choices sometimes are based upon electrical impulses and neuron activity that are not a part of conscious behavior. This includes not only criminal activity, but also decisions made by police, prosecutors, and jurors to arrest, prosecute, or convict.”

The MacArthur Foundation Law and Neuroscience Project has been established to help all the stakeholders make better decisions based on solid science.