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The Brain On Trial At AAAS

Publication Date: 
February 21, 2010
Jen H. Leslie

Professor Hank Greely is mentioned in this blog post for his participation in a mock-trial at the AAAS 2010 Annual Meeting called, "The Brain on Trial: Neuroscience Evidence in the Courtroom":

The judge sits at the front of the room. He has a distinguished look, graying at the temples, and a commanding air. Glasses perched on the tip of his nose, he addresses the room, “The Bailiff will excuse the jury at this time.” And as he waves his hand dismissively at the jury, the audience breaks out in titters of laughter.

This is not actually a courtroom, and the judge isn’t wearing robes. Instead, this is room 2 in the San Diego Convention Center and it is this morning’s session, The Brain on Trial: Neuroscience Evidence in the Courtroom, at the AAAS 2010 meeting. The judge is a real judge, the Honorable Luis A. Rodriguez, from the Superior Court of California in Orange County. The session however, is not your normal scientific meeting, and boy is it refreshing and eye-opening.

Set up as a mock-trial, the session was designed to examine the increasingly common dilemma of whether evidence such as MRI images, which can be used to see damage in the brain such as lesions or tumors, should be entered into court cases. Besides the judge, there was also a Defense Attorney, Mr. Robert Knaier, and a Prosecuting Attorney, Mr. Henry Greely, both actual lawyers. There were also expert witnesses for both sides of the case, Dr. James Brewer for the defense, and Dr. Michael Rafii for the prosecution.


“From a lesion in the frontal lobe would you be able to tell if an individual was able to form an intent to commit a crime?” asked Mr. Greely the prosecuting attorney.


The judge found the evidence admissible, and we the jury eventually found the defendant guilty, although of Murder 2 (not premeditated) instead of Murder 1. In the process many questions were raised. Like, how did the defense get the MRI evidence in the first place and why? Are you depriving defendants who can’t get an MRI? Mr Greely, who when not playing a Prosecuting Attorney in mock trials, is actually an academic (though certified attorney) who studies these questions, has done research which shows that there have been maybe 30-100 cases with MRI evidence in the state of California over the past 4 years. There have however been 100,000 felony convictions, so it’s a small number, for now. Some of these have also been MRI’s of the victim to help show the extent of injury.