Professors discuss use of brain science in court

In this post, Professor Berman of the Sentencing Law and Policy blog, asks, "Can and should brain science research become a regular (and regulated) part of sentencing decision-making."

The post goes on to discuss this NPR segment, which notes that "[a]bout 5 percent of murder trials now involve neuroscience," and that such science has been particularly successful with cases involving teenage defendants.

The segment then discusses the potential downsides, "For example, [said Harvard psych. professor Buckholtz], if a prosecutor used an MRI scan to show that a 16-year-old who committed a capital crime had a very mature brain, 'Would we then insist that we execute that juvenile?'"

Professor Berman responds that he "understand[s] [the] concerns . . . . But juries and judges are drawn to scientific research largely because the [] alternative is to rely more on gut feelings, emotions, instincts or biases. Unless brain scans provide a worse foundation for making judgments than gut feelings[, etc.], . . . they ought to have a role in legal decision-making."

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I agree with Professor Berman's analysis. The job of the jury at trial, and one of the judge's major roles at sentencing, is to determine the truth. While "junk science" threatens to mislead these decision-makers, neuroscience---which suggests, for example, that childhood poverty affects brain development---certainly has a place in the courtroom, where its validity and probative value can be tested by the adversarial process. Thus, I am with Prof. Berman who "hope[s] [ ] scientists and law professors [and lawyers and judges] will now turn their attention to debating how the legal system might most fairly and effectively operationalize what the brain research is telling us about . . . human behaviors and personal development."