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The Human Brain as a Deadly Weapon: Privacy Laws vs. Protecting the Public


Today we mourn the dead at Virginia Tech. Everyone looks for someone to blame. Everyone wants to hold someone responsible. As anyone who has ever dealt with the mental illness of a family member, a co-worker, a neighbor, a friend, or an acquaintance can tell you, Good luck with that. A deadly Catch-22 exists at the confluence of mental illness, privacy laws, victim rights and public protections. Defense lawyers are using advances in neuroscience to get reduced sentences for people with damaged brains who commit violent crimes. Clearly we need robust debate about using advances in neuroscience to prevent violent crime.

New York Times reporter Jeffery Rosen wrote a procative piece in the March 11, 2007 Sunday Times Magazine, The Trials of Neurolaw: How advances in brain science could transform our legal system. Mr. Rosen reports that in the 1990's, neuroscience evidence admitted in defense of a man who killed his wife hallmarked a transformation in the American legal system. The expert witness on the case, forensic psychologist Daniel Martell, started a consulting business, Forensic Neuroscience. Rosen reports that defense lawyers are now routinely ordering brain scans and arguing that violent criminals are unable to control their actions. Martell claims this has "'revolutionized the law'". Great for the poor dude with brain damage (sorry Anderson Cooper, if like Cho Seung-Hui's great aunt I lack sympathy [she had the good sense to call him 'Idiot!']) but what about the the rest of just hoping we can raise our kids and die peacefully before they do? Rosen raises the concern that as more brain scans are admitted in court as evidence, jurors and judges may be asked to distinguish between "normal and abnormal brains."

Roper vs. Simmons was the 2005 landmark Supreme Court case forbidding executions in juvenile offenders under the age of 18. The compelling reasons for the judgement were that adolescents lack neuronal development in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain where executive function is coordinated. In Roper vs. Simmons, the American Medical Association (AMA) argued that juveniles were less able than adults to control impulses and therefore should not be held fully accountable for their "immature neural anatomy". I certainly support that, but Mr. Rosen poses some troubling questions most cogently: "...should the courts decide to mitigate...criminal responsiblity..." due to improper brain function, whether it be due to trauma, genetics, environment or some deadly combination of factors? Do we need to redefine our ideas about justice?

Do we need to redefine our ideas about privacy? If defense lawyers are going to use neuroscience to defend criminals who is going to use neuroscience to protect the rest of us? We know enough about Antisocial Personality Disorder and PET scans to be able to predict who might enact violent crimes. We now have Megan's Law with a Registry for Sex Offenders. New York has Kendra's Law to enforce treatment of the mentally ill after a schizophrenic pushed Kendra in front of a subway train. Maybe we need a VT law with a public database of all known persons with potentially violent tendencies, give them mandatory GPS bracelets and preclude them from purchasing weapons or getting a licence to operate machinery. Any other ideas?

For related posts on this subject see:
Messed Up Guys with Guns: National Youth Violence Prevention Week

Asians and the Stigma of Mental Illness: National Minority Health and Health Disparities Month

Thank you rahid1 for use of the photo.
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The Healthline Editorial team writes about the latest health news, policy, and research.

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