Published On: Sat, May 9th, 2015

When Criminal Law Meets Neuroscience

The rapid progress of innovative technology has proved to have a number of potential benefits. However, it also raises a number of questions about the legal and moral ramifications of its use within the justice system.

The potential applications of neuroscience in criminal and civil law are increasing in number. The national Research Network on Law and Neuroscience was established in 2011 with a $4.5 million dollar MacArthur Foundation grant. The organization has their headquarters at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Their goals, in addition to conducting neuroscientific research, include utilizing some of the results of their research in the courtroom and making neuroscience more accessible to the public.

Photo/CRIME SCENE DO NOT CROSS / @CSI?cafe via wikimedia commons

Photo/CRIME SCENE DO NOT CROSS / @CSI?cafe via wikimedia commons

The Network’s director, Owen Jones, is a professor of law and biology. According to him, scientific research methods can be used in the processes of detecting lies, determining levels of culpability, and deciding appropriate punishment.

“Seeking the truth is at once the most fundamental and the most difficult task of the criminal justice system. From arrest to sentencing, participants are challenged to decide whether suspects and witnesses are telling the truth, engaging in deliberate deception, or being sincere yet mistaken.”

Neuroscientists, in conjunction with the justice system, are working on finding answers to questions such as whether monitoring brain activity can determine whether an individual recognizes a face they have seen before. If so, can such responses be faked or altered by outside factors such as threats or rewards? Although we may never be able to determine the answers to these questions with 100% accuracy, the questions themselves may yield some valuable information.

Increasing the accuracy of determining mental states is another goal of their research. One relevant question posed to guide the research is whether there are measurable differences in the mental states defined by the penal code. Others include whether brain development, injury or mental illness should be mitigating factors in determining the level of culpability and whether neural activity can be used to distinguish awareness of right and wrong versus awareness of social consequences.

Just as answers to these questions may result in a more precise determination of guilt, answers to other questions could result in fairer and more just sentences for those convicted of crimes. How is the brain activity of jurors affected by age, race and sex during the process of distinguishing a defendant’ mental state? Can a defendant’s brain activity be used to establish the existence of prior knowledge regarding a criminal act?

The increasing ability of science to answer questions like these provides new tools for criminal lawyers like Natasha Shorter and the means for positive reform of our justice system. However, to avoid the equal potential for abuse, we must all continue to recognize our important role as witnesses in ensuring that justice is served, rather than diminished, by these new scientific discoveries.


Guest Author: Archie Ward

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