- Published: October 31, 2012
When looking at punishment within the frames of the legal system, there have been instances in history when legal precedent has been manipulated by media attention and subsequent outrage. For example, when John Hinckley Jr. successfully pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity during his attempt to assassinate President Ronald Reagan, the majority of the public was outraged at the verdict. They felt that Hinckley had gotten off easily for an attempted murder of our national leader. As a result, there has been a stricter interpretation of the insanity defense, making it harder to apply for when it comes to a trial. Similarly, our punishment of sexual offenders has been guided by media portrayal and attention as well. The abduction, rape, and murder of Jacob Wetterling led to “Jacob’s Laws” which made a database of sexual offenders accessible to law enforcement officers. A few years later, a similar incident happened to Megan Kanka, leading to “Megan’s Laws.” This included more information about the sexual offender added to the database, and it is now public so that neighbors can know if there were sexual offenders in their neighborhood. Although this may sound like a positive move forward in finding sexual offenders, a public database may stigmatize some offenders more than others. All kinds of different sex offenses are placed on the database, and the public may not take the time to decipher these different crimes. As a result, some of these less dangerous offenders are still stigmatized, leading to the “social death” of their personas as they are not able to start anew.
The question these cases raise is whether or not the media could get in the way of using neuroscience in the court room. In the case of John Hinckley, neuroscience may have provided a treatment plan to help rehab Hinckley’s mental condition. However, as seen with the public’s reaction, many critics would not feel satisfied about this punishment. Likewise, if sexual offenders or other criminals are not punished to the full extent of the law as some victim’s families demand, there may be much public outcry that neuroscience would actually be ruining the criminal justice system. It would be great if neuroscience followed all of our intuitions regarding culpability and punishment, but that is not the case. It has increasingly shined the light on the problems that we can come across with criminal brains, and it has used the knowledge as an impetus for better and more rational sentencing. As beneficial as that sounds, it would be naïve to think that the public would full-heartedly support this idea at first. In my previous blogs, I have described this problem a little in which much of the public has emphasized the retribution aspect of the criminal justice system, not the rehabilitation aspect of the system in which neuroscience would greatly put more of a focus on. We may not know the extent of the public reaction to neuroscience being introduced into the court room until a major case uses such evidence to go against the prevailing public opinion. When this does occur, the criminal justice system’s reaction to such public outcry will be instrumental in determining neuroscience’s place in the court room for the future.
Dershowitz, Alan M.. "Abuses After the Hinckley Case."The New York Times: Opinion Pages. New York Times, 20 2011. Web. 30 Oct 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2011/01/20/who-qualifies-for-the-insanity-defense/abuses-after-the-hinckley-case.
"Megan's Law Website." Pennsylvania State Police. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, n.d. Web. 30 Oct 2012. http://www.pameganslaw.state.pa.us/History.aspx?dt=.\
Megale, Elizabeth Berenguer, The Invisible Man: How the Sex Offender Registry Results in Social Death (October 4, 2011). The Journal of Law and Social Deviance, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1938397