The brain's hidden agenda

Neuroimages can reveal physical explanations for violent, impulsive behavior. But does this technology have the power to excuse the accused?


     Impulsivity, a common symptom of many brain injuries that can arise from dysfunction in the frontal and temporal regions, could translate into a citizen exposing himself on Main Street or, like in Weinstein's case, lead to murder. So why is it important to know why?

     "Brains don't commit crimes, people commit crimes," says Morse. And yet the study of the living brain continues to impact criminal defense work. Is impulsiveness a mitigating condition? And if so, to what extent?

     The kind of brain problem a person had or has can speak to whether he or she can be rehabilitated or are considered competent to stand trial. It can also help jurors understand the hidden operations behind behavior and judgment.

     And hopefully, someday this type of trauma can be detected sooner. But for now, Hartman says, it's more a post-hoc connection where one can only look backward if the person is violent and has a brain tumor. A tumor may contribute to violence, but it can't be said that anyone with a brain tumor might be violent. "It's a pity we don't know enough about the brain to know that in one person's case, their particular combination of environment and brain technology will result in violent action," says Hartman. "I'm not sure it would be a moral avenue to pursue. Is it ethical to punish or confine a person with a combination of neurological and environmental factors because they somehow 'might' be a murderer? What if you're wrong?"

     For now, developing and relying on more specific neuro-technology is work for future neurologists and courtrooms. But it's something they work on now, nonetheless, picture by increasingly clearer picture.

     Editor's note: This is the first in a two-part series from Associate Editor Sara Schreiber on links between the brain and impulsive crimes. Look for part two in the June issue of Law Enforcement Technology.

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