fMRI scans used in murder trial sentencing

Scale of justice
Scale of justice. Image: Wikipedia

( -- Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scans have been used, possibly for the first time, in the sentencing phase of a murder trial in Chicago in the US.

The defendant, Brian Dugan, was convicted for the 1983 kidnapping, rape and murder of a 10-year-old girl, Jeanine Nicarico. Dugan had pleaded guilty in July this year, while serving life sentences for two other murders. Prosecutors at the trial asked for the death penalty to be imposed.

The defense lawyers believed Dugan had suffered from a mental illness -- psychopathy -- from birth and asked for fMRI scans to be presented as evidence in the sentencing phase. Lead defense attorney Steve Greeberg said the fMRI scans indicated Dugan had a brain disorder in keeping with psychopathy, and his mental illness meant his ability to control his psychopathic urges was reduced.

Dugan had been given a standard for psychopathy and scored 37 out of a possible 40, which placed him in the 99.5th percentile, according to neuroscientist Kent Kiehl of the University of Mexico, who was an expert witness for the defense.

Kiehl runs fMRI and other brain scans on inmates in prisons in New Mexico, as they perform a series of activities, including tests involving moral reasoning. Kiehl testified that Dugan's fMRI scans showed similar features to those of other psychopaths.

An expert witness for the prosecution, Jonathan Brodie of New York University, said the evidence presented by the scans was irrelevant since they could not indicate Dugan's thought processes in 1983, when the murder was committed.

After 10 hours of deliberation the jury returned with the death sentence, apparently after a change of mind in at least one juror who had wanted Dugan to receive a life sentence instead. Greenberg said the last minute change was highly irregular, and he is planning to appeal.

In previous cases PET scans have been used as evidence of , but the Dugan case is believed to be the first in which fMRI scans have been used. Professor Hank Greely of Stanford Law School said the standards required for evidence in the phase were less stringent than during the trial, especially in capital cases when the law makes special dispensation to allow the defendant to introduce almost any evidence that might save him from the death penalty.

© 2009

Citation: fMRI scans used in murder trial sentencing (2009, November 25) retrieved 23 October 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Nov 25, 2009
Call in the pre-cogs!

Where do we draw the line? If an immoral act is explainable through purely deductive logic, does that somehow absolve the criminal of 'his' wrong-doing & somehow make the death penalty immoral? Everything is 'magic' (or 'evil') until it is understood....

As brain scanning & consciousness studies get finer-grained I think we're going to conclude it's immoral to swat flies, eat carrots, slaughter cows, perform the death penalty, delete an AI program......

Nov 25, 2009
(For the record, I'm against capital punishment. But that's not the issue here.)

If we let him off the chair on grounds of psychopathy, shouldn't we also let off all other rapists on grounds of sexual mania? Isn't pedophilia, too, an illness? Or if you really, really, really hate somenone?

I don't think it would work.

"Justice, is but one of the Three Big Lies that children are brought up with. The other two are Santa and God."

Nov 26, 2009
If the defendant is a psychopath, wouldn't a jury of peers also be psychopaths? But then again, only a psychopath would wish death on another human being (except in self defence or in the defence of innocents) so it appears that the defendant did indeed have a jury of peers.

Nov 29, 2009
Where do we draw the line? If an immoral act is explainable through purely deductive logic, does that somehow absolve the criminal of 'his' wrong-doing & somehow make the death penalty immoral?

It's not about morality it's about self preservation of the society. Individuals who commit such crimes have to be removed and what is behind their actions - free will or a completely deterministic brain - doesn't matter.

Personally I consider capital punishment a preferable solution for a number of reasons:
1. It is in fact very merciful - death is the ultimate freedom, freedom from suffering, fear, stress and mental problems. The only ones who suffer as a result of capital punishment are those who stay alive.
2. I don't see anything wrong in taking life from those who took life of others themselves.
3. I object to the idea that society should pay for incarceration of such individuals.

Nov 29, 2009
Those who are favouring capital punishment are, in fact, inevitably favouring the killing of innocent, too. Because: errare humanum est.

Those who oppose capital punishment are, in fact, inevitably favouring the killing of innocent, too. Because: some detainees who escape or are eventually released kill again.

Nov 29, 2009
Justification is the same no matter if it's capital punishment or life sentence - lesser evil.

Nov 29, 2009
I don't believe that "lesser evil" is your real justification (...) Otherwise I'd have to assume(...)

False dichotomy.

Lesser evil is my real justification but that hardly means I support killing people for organs, the two cases are completely different.

In the case of capital punishment eventual killing of an innocent person is due to an error which can be made to happen extremely rarely, no one singles out innocent people to kill them. There are also significant benefits which include elimination of many potential crimes, huge costs savings and a slight improvement of gene pool.

Your example on the other hand involves purposeful selection and killing of innocent humans just to prolong life of certain other privileged humans. What makes you think it's a lesser evil? I guess you mean potential average lifespan increase but such killings would lead to extreme social tensions which would far outweigh any tentative benefits of this sort.

Dec 13, 2009
By discarding the principle of "lesser evil" in a special case...

I do not discard it in any case. Try reading what I wrote, your example didn't constitute lesser evil.

It can't be a principle because it is based on the erroneous assumption that human lives can be measured with a quasi euclidean norm:
Worth(of one human life) < Worth(of two human lives).
One of the major human fallacies of the last 10 millennia is the neglect of the quasi infinity norm:
Worth(of one human being) = Worth(of many human beings).

First the assumption behind lesser evil is not your "quasi euclidean norm" but the idea that human suffering is quantifiable and additive and that one should strive to minimize the sum total of suffering.

Second mass murder is a bigger crime then murder. Imagine losing one member of your family and loosing them all, or having your whole nation wiped out. Do you seriously claim that those crimes are equivalent? Cause that's what your "quasi infinity norm" implies.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more