- Published: October 31, 2012
When considering a forward-looking legal system that emphasizes rehabilitation over retribution, there are a few “easy” cases that lend themselves particularly well to such a system. Take, for instance, Charles Whitman, the man who shot and killed 13 people from the top of the University of Texas Tower in Austin before committing suicide. It may seem like he was merely a cold-hearted killer, but another story arose when police found his diary. Apparently, he was aware that he was having completely irrational and dangerous thoughts and that he was “not himself”. It turns out that he was right; he requested in his suicide note that an autopsy should be performed on his brain, and the doctors found a sizeable tumor compressing his amygdala, which is primarily responsible for emotional regulation and aggression. There are similar other cases, such as the “sudden pedophile” who developed severe aberrant sexual tendencies until an enormous tumor in his orbitofrontal cortex was removed. This is a rather extreme case of frontal lobe dysfunction where the brain abnormality clearly caused the behavior (since the behavior stopped when the tumor was removed, and in fact, when his pedophilic tendencies began to resurface, doctors discovered that his tumor had begun to grow back; it was removed again, and again he returned to normal). When we find a direct causal relationship such as this and it is possible to directly fix the cause, rehabilitation becomes quite straightforward. Unfortunately, real life is rarely so simple.
A few major questions arise with moving towards a rehabilitative legal system informed by neuroscience. First, for cases like Charles Whitman or the sudden pedophile where a behavioral analysis would be insufficient to uncover the root of the problem, how will we find out if something is terribly awry in the brain? The pedophile’s tumor was found after he complained of severe headaches, but Whitman’s problem wasn’t discovered until he had already killed 13 people and himself. Perhaps the courts will mandate that all accused criminals are given brain scans to determine if something is obviously, biologically wrong. Some people would argue that this is an invasion of privacy; however, I suspect that the bigger concern is how the data will be used. It is extremely rare that a brain scan would actually uncover a direct cause of the criminal behavior, so it is possible that people’s own brains could be used against them when, in reality, the issue is much more complicated. Still, we can hope that as people’s understanding of the brain and brain-imaging improves, people in the courtroom will be wary of confusing correlation for causality.
Second, even if neuroimaging could reveal a criminal’s brain abnormalities that were likely the source of their aberrant behaviors, what would it mean for a rehabilitative system if the problem was found yet could not be changed? In a fascinating study by Adrian Raine, he found that murderers exhibited significantly less frontal brain activity than controls. Moreover, when he divided the murderers into those who digressed deliberately to achieve a goal and “affective” killers who acted impulsively, only the latter group showed a marked difference from the control subjects, suggesting that some frontal lobe dysfunction seems to be at the very least a contributing factor for these affective killers’ behavior. However, when it comes time to decide what to do about rehabilitation and sentencing, what should we do with someone who may have frontal lobe dysfunction but cannot be “cured” by simply removing a tumor? Do we deem them hopeless and lock them up for life, even though we acknowledge that they are not wholly “at fault” for their actions, or is there any other kind of rehabilitative option, either now or in the future? I believe that we should persevere with our focus on rehabilitation; at the very least, even in the case of permanent frontal dysfunction, rehabilitative efforts might be able to eliminate some factors, such as drugs or alcohol, that exacerbate the neurological dysfunction. Perhaps even some sort of medication will be able to help return frontal functionality to normal. One way or another, neuroscience-informed rehabilitative efforts hold a lot of promise for the future of our legal system.
Eagleman, David. Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. 1st ed. New York: Pantheon Books, 2011. 151-154. Print.
Seiden, Jessie. "The Criminal Brain: Frontal Lobe Dysfunction Evidence in Capital Proceedings." Capital Defense Journal. 16.2 (2004): 395-420. Web.