Neuroscience & Criminal Justice

Neuroscience & Criminal Justice

Date

HostIan Punnett

GuestsKevin Davis

In 1991 police were called to a Manhattan apartment where a woman's body had fallen from a 12th-story window. The woman’s husband, Herbert Weinstein, who had no criminal record and no history of violent behavior, soon confessed. But after an MRI revealed a large cyst on the part of the brain that governs judgment and impulse control, Weinstein’s lawyer seized on the discovery, arguing the cyst had impaired Weinstein's judgment and he should not be held criminally responsible. Journalist Kevin Davis joined Ian Punnett (Twitter) to explore the intersection of neuroscience and criminal justice, and discuss this case which raised complex questions about how we define responsibility and free will.

Davis described Weinstein as a mild-mannered man who lived an exemplary life until the moment he strangled his wife after a heated argument and dropped her body out of their apartment window. A PET scan showed indication the function of Weinstein's prefrontal lobe had been compromised by the cyst. Weinstein's lawyer's research uncovered a connection between a compromised prefrontal cortex and impulse control, Davis reported. The lawyer cited the case of Phineas Gage, who's behavior changed markedly after an accident damaged the same area of the brain, he continued.

"Over the years researchers and neuroscientists were able to confirm this notion that our executive functions, our impulse controls were located in the prefrontal cortex, so anytime that area of the brain is damaged those functions are compromised," Davis said. How does the legal system deal with this and are people like Weinstein culpable in the same way as someone without brain damage, he pondered. According to Davis, the essence of why this case is controversial is because not all people with similar brain damage commit violent criminal acts due to loss of impulse control. Though Weinstein was allowed to plea to the lesser charge of manslaughter, "this is a very difficult defense to sustain successfully," he noted.

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