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MRI's Successes Put The Brain On Trial

Publication Date: 
March 10, 2010
Ars Technica
John Timmer

Professor Hank Greely, an expert in law and the biosciences, is mentioned in an article from Ars Technica about the possible uses of neuroscience and MRIs in the courtroom:

A typical neuroscience paper (or a typical report on one) is a laundry list of structure:function relationships between brain regions and the mental tasks they perform. The amygdala deals with registering rewards, the hippocampus handles memory, and so on. These relationships have been the result of over a century of work, starting with rare cases of brain injury and building through modern medical imaging, which can detect ever-smaller lesions and associate neural activity with specific cognitive processes. Doctors routinely rely on the combination of brain imaging and structure:function relationships for diagnostic purposes, but is wider society willing to trust it in the courtroom, where it might make the difference between guilt and innocence?

That question was handled in a rather unusual manner at the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science: a mock trial. Most other panels consisted of a set of scientists who each gave a fairly standard presentation. This one was presided over by Louis Rodriguez, an Orange County Superior Court Judge, and featured a law school professor and a practicing attorney, each with a neuroscientist as an expert witness. Although the proceedings were heavily scripted, anyone who's sat through a jury trial would recognize that they were a reasonable attempt to approximate a normal courtroom experience.


Henry Greely of Stanford Law led Dr. Raffi through the prosecution's arguments. Raffi said that, in some cases where he's seen similar damage, there were no behavioral deficits. And, in general, there are at least three different collections of symptoms associated with frontal lobe damage, only one of which was suggested by the defense (the others involve general apathy and reduced motor control). In most cases, regardless of the symptoms, they tended to be sporadic. ...


Greely said that there are about 100,000 felony cases in California annually, but he could find less than 10 a year in which MRI evidence was introduced (and half of those involved imaging of the victim). So far, most of that has been simply imaging; nationwide, there has been little courtroom use of functional MRI, which tracks activity in specific areas of the brain. For the most part, MRI use has been limited to murder and capital punishment cases, where the stakes justify the cost.