Sunday, November 29, 2009
by Greg Miller
For what may be the first time, fMRI scans of brain activity have been used as evidence in the sentencing phase of a murder trial. Defense lawyers for an Illinois man convicted of raping and killing a 10-year-old girl used the scans to argue that their client should be spared the death penalty because he has a brain disorder.
The defendant, Brian Dugan, pleaded guilty in July to killing Jeanine Nicarico after kidnapping her from her home in 1983. (Prior to that, the Nicarico case had taken more turns than a hangman's knot, detailed in a 1998 book Victims of Justice). Dugan was already serving life sentences for two other murders, but prosecutors sought the death penalty for Nicarico's murder.
"Nobody thought we had any chance at all going in," says Steve Greenberg, the lead attorney for the defense. But the defense tried an unusual strategy: They argued that Dugan was born with a mental illness—psychopathy—that should be considered a mitigating factor because it impaired his ability to control his behavior. Dugan exhibits the antisocial behavior, inpulsivity, lack of remorse, and other characteristics of psychopathy in spades, says Kent Kiehl, a neuroscientist at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, and the Mind Research Network, who served as an expert witness for the defense. Dugan scored 37 out of 40 points on the standard diagnostic checklist for psychopathy, putting him in the 99.5th percentile, Kiehl says.
Kiehl conducts research on psychopathy in New Mexico state prisons in which he and colleagues collect life histories, anatomical brain scans, and fMRI scans of brain activity as inmates perform various tasks, including tests of moral reasoning. Using scanners at Northwestern University, Kiehl ran Dugan through a similar battery of tests. Kiehl testified that Dugan exhibited abnormalities similar to those he and others have reported in other psychopaths. Kiehl says he was careful not to stretch beyond what the data show. He didn't claim, for example, that the brain scans prove that Dugan committed his crimes as a result of a brain abnormality. "It's just one piece of evidence that his brain is different," he says.
Jonathan Brodie, a psychiatrist at New York University testified for the prosecution. "I said the scans are of wonderful technical quality, but so what? They're not relevant here," Brodie says. "Using an fMRI scan done in September of 2009 … to indicate a thought process that was going on in 1983 could hardly be more silly."
After 5 hours of deliberation the jury told the judge on 10 November that they'd come to a decision. But before the sentence could be read, the jury asked for more time and the judge sequestered them overnight. The next day they returned with a death sentence for Dugan. According to media reports and interviews with defense attorneys afterwards, the jury initially planned to sentence Dugan to life in prison, with at least one juror holding out against the death penalty, which requires a unanimous vote. The last minute change is highly irregular, says Greenberg, who is planning an appeal.
Although evidence of anatomical abnormalities in the brain has been introduced previously in the sentencing phase of murder cases, and PET scans have been used to show abnormalities in brain metabolism consistent with mental illness, the Dugan case may be a first for fMRI. "I don't know of any other cases where fMRI was used in that context," says Hank Greely, a professor at Stanford Law School and co-director of the MacArthur Foundation Law and Neuroscience Project. Greely notes that the standards for admitting evidence in sentencing hearings are less stringent than those for evidence used to establish a defendant's innocence or guilt. "The penalty phase of a capital case … is a special situation where the law bends over backwards to allow the convicted man to introduce just about any mitigating evidence."
It's hard to know what effect the fMRI scans in particular had on the jury in the Dugan case, but Greenberg says the fact that they deliberated for a total of more than 10 hours shows that it was influential. "This guy was guilty of raping and killing little girls," Greenberg says. "Without the brain imaging stuff the jury would have been back in an hour."
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Genes and criminals: Italian court makes controversial ruling
“Don’t blame me—it was my genes’ fault.” Could this be the plea of future criminals? In Italy, the case of a man who confessed to murder in 2007 may set a precedent.
It’s not that unusual that an Italian court gave Abdelmalek Bayout three years less than it otherwise would have because his lawyer argued Bayout was mentally ill at the time of the crime. What is unprecedented, though, is that at an appeal hearing in September the judge removed an additional year from the defendant’s sentence based on genetic tests. The judge believed Bayout’s genes made him “particularly aggressive in stressful situations,” basing his decision on the tests that revealed Bayout to have low levels of MAOA, a trait which has been linked to criminal behavior.
It was the first time in a European court that behavioral genetics has affected a sentence. In the United States, this type of defense has been used more than 200 times in the past five years and in rare cases has influenced sentencing.
“There’s increasing evidence that some genes together with a particular environmental insult may predispose people to certain behavior,” Pietro Pietrini, a molecular neuroscientist at Italy’s University of Pisa and one of the researchers investigating Bayout’s genetic makeup, said in a Nature news article.
Many people argue that this is true for anyone. It’s certainly a worthwhile question: Isn’t anyone who commits murder at least a little bit mentally ill? While this particular criminal’s sentence was reduced, others have argued that courts could rule the other way—if the person’s genes are “bad,” perhaps the sentencing should be stricter.
Many researchers contacted by Nature also questioned the court’s decisions. Giuseppe Novelli, a forensic scientist and geneticist, said that tests for single genes are “useless.” The judge may not have considered some additional relevant factors when analyzing the results, according to geneticist Terrie Moffitt.
It’s an interesting debate and likely one with too many factors to be settled any time soon.
One of the biggest issues that the documentary brings up is the insanity of bureaucracy. On one hand, having a standardized way of doing business or government is essential to allowing for regulation and equality standards. But on the other hand, I think it becomes too easy for officials to hide behind rules and protocol, and miss out on what's really going on around them. In any case, the documentary is great, and it's free on netflix so check it out!
Thursday, November 12, 2009
Maybe its just me.
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
Let me know what you think!
Thursday, November 5, 2009
And which decisions, you might wonder is Dr. Knutson studying? Which essential decision making process is he doing his best to flesh out? You guessed it: the decisions we make when we...spend money. The experiments he presented were based in trying to figure out when someone is going to buy something or not, or when they are going to make risky investment decisions. A majority of neuroscience research into decision making, in fact, has been focused on economic choices of the individual, as you can find here. I'm not going to speculate on why, when it comes to the vast array of decisions human beings make on a day to day basis neuroscientists have been most engaged with how people make economic decisions, but so it is.
But anyway, what it does bring to the forefront is something that has been looming in neuroscience, and science more generally, for a while now. Basically, what has always been an implicit project of science, figuring out specific causes of events so that they can predicted in the future, has now become an explicit project of neuroscience, and our conception of free will hangs in the balance.
Scientists disagree widely about when or how or even if these discoveries will be made. But to me, the point is that thousands of scientists in our country are engaged in the project of making it happen right now. Even if they are only mildly successful, our current notions of free will and moral responsibility will be fiercely challenged. If scientists are looking for ways that they can use your neurological and genetic information to predict events and behavior that you will experience, where does your free will lie? This is hardly a new question posed by science, but I think it is becoming more urgent that we think long and hard about how to address it. This way, if the data arrives, we will know how to interpret and communicate it long before we are actually presented with it.
Groups like the law & neuroscience project are already starting to deal with these issues as they come to the forefront in legal matters. But this is not enough to address the effects this information will have on average individuals' conception of themselves. How can we experience ourselves if we come to know all the reasons we will do the things we do? Sometimes, I think that there is no way to conceive of there not being free will, and that's enough to keep the concept intact. But at other moments, when I concentrate really hard, I can imagine reliable information about what decisions I'm going to make or experiences I'm going to have could be at the same time freeing and extremely limiting.
This is both exciting and scary to me. Could we be on the edge of a new paradigm, a whole new way of looking at the universe and ourselves? It would be exhilarating---but I have no answers, only questions. And the hope that we can get more smart people to really think about this question.
Wednesday, November 4, 2009
Tuesday, November 3, 2009
Basically, if you have an idea of a project you want to do (usually an artistic project), then you post it on this website and ask for people to fund it through pledges (can be large or small). The 'kicker' is, unless you raise all the money you need through pledges, you don't get money at all. This encourages people to pledge a little more liberally, and makes sure that anything you pledge money to gets accomplished. I love the concept, perhaps most especially because in my future imagination of the world everyone will work together to do everything, and it will all be run through the internet. Plus, everyone wins--you either get your awesome idea funded or get to spend that cigarette money on allowing someone to create something awesome!
Monday, November 2, 2009
Atheists have begun a new ad campaign to inform other atheists that there are many atheists in the country---and that their numbers are growing! Rational humanism, naturalism, the brights, United Coalition of Reason, are just a few examples of the groups these atheists have developed.
The stated or understated message of these groups is this: a naturalist, or rational world view is what makes sense, and as more and more people come to their senses, belief in God will end. In a lot of ways, I think this movement is a good thing. Religious beliefs that cause harm to other individuals, like homophobia, should be ferociously attacked and I’m glad people are taking them head on.
But the fight against religious beliefs that lead to intolerance, violence, and pain is not the same fight as a debate over God’s existence. If atheists honestly want to engage in a debate, they must argue against theism, not religion in general. Religion is an organization of people that share a belief in a specific brand of theism, just as “the brights” are an organization of people that share a belief in a specific brand of atheism. To criticize the actions of “the brights” is not a valid argument against belief in atheism generally, and the same goes in reverse.
Atheists who claim it is “rational” to be atheists have lost track of themselves. I can understand this confusion. For, as science has progressed, it has disproven many of the most sacred teachings of various religions. The sense of 'disprove' here means that the teachings have been shown to NOT be rational fact. This has served to be a red herring for those involved in the atheism vs. theism debate, as it leads to such “rational conclusions” as “the theory of evolution is a rational fact, thus there is no God.”
Atheists are engaging in a belief, not a rational conclusion. They are choosing to believe that the reality that we experience and come to understand through the scientific method, or ‘empirical reality’ as Kant called it, is the ONLY truth or reality. For atheists, there is no knowledge, truth, or reality beyond what humans can know through reason.
Theism, then, is the belief that there is knowledge beyond what humans can possibly know. We can call this knowledge, or reality, or truth, God. It is not, however, necessarily the claim that we know, in the same way we ‘know’ scientific fact, something about this knowledge. Many theists do think they ‘know’ something about God in the same way that they ‘know’ the sky is blue. But in my mind, this God is by definition something that we cannot know. Yet, once one engages in the belief of this God’s existence, there are some things that can be shown to follow logically. And this is the stuff of religion. The important point is that there is nothing inherent in theism that is counter to science.
We can imagine that eventually a vast majority of people in the world will accept that the facts derived through the scientific method are the most objective, and thus truthful way that humans can understand the world. But this will not end the debate of theism vs. atheism. The question is not whether the scientific method can create an objective viewpoint through which universal human truths can be derived. Rather, it is whether these truths are truly ‘reality’, or the ultimate truths about the world.
This debate is one that rests on faith. There is no logical path that will lead you one way or the other. This is the essential fact that I believe atheists need to do a better job of understanding and promoting. Perhaps through this, the debate can begin to transcend its current stalemate and investigate the fascinating questions about truth and reality that are constantly present in our lives.