Earlier this year, Edwin Hart Turner (38) was executed by lethal injection after being convicted of murdering Eddie Brooks and Everett Curry in a robbing spree near Mississippi. Shortly before the murders, Turner had been admitted at a mental hospital for depression after an attempted suicide. The defence attorneys’ main argument against Turner’s execution was his unstable state of mental health. Guilty or not guilty, Turner’s lawyers argued that a mentally ill person should be exempt from state execution.
Charles Whitman was a sporty, popular man who became increasingly aggressive and violent, while complaining of ‘tremendous headaches’. In 1966 he shot 13 people dead and wounded 32 others at the University of Texas in Austin before committing suicide. His autopsy discovered a cancerous tumour the size of a walnut invading his amygdala – a part of the brain important in regulating fear and rage.
Currently, the trial of Norwegian Anders Behring Breivik is dividing both social and professional opinion. Breivik, led by his far right-wing views, killed 8 people with a car bomb in Oslo and 69 more on the island of Utoya, a camp for the youth wing of the Norwegian Labour Party. Breivik maintains that he is not legally insane and that he should be held fully culpable for his acts. Legally this would mean the difference between him being sectioned in a mental hospital, possibly indefinitely, or being incarcerated for a very long time. Professional opinions of Breivik’s mental health vary from him being ‘lucid but lonely’, to having personality disorders, including extreme narcissism; paranoid schizophrenia or psychosis; being both suicidal and homicidal; to having ‘a rare form of Asperger’s and Tourette’s syndrome’.
Admittedly, cases such as these aren’t exactly common. However, with further advances in our understanding of mental illness these stories are increasingly relevant, necessitating a level of crossover between neuroscience and legal ethics. This crossover poses a major dilemma for society, the question of how much personal control we have over our own brains and whether or not we can be held entirely responsible for our actions? Must all mass-murderers be, to some extent, mentally ill since they fall so far outside a ‘normal’ moral spectrum? Are we less accountable for our actions and decisions since our brains’ functions are a product of our biology and social influences?
These more general philosophical questions lead us to specific practical questions about how society should act. Should all criminals be psychologically and neurologically tested when being trialled? Should brain scans be used as evidence in a court of law? How should we treat people who have committed terrible crimes but are psychologically or neurologically unwell and should there be a distinction between the two?
At the end of 2011 The Royal Society published a report stating that in the USA, neurological or behavioural genetics were used as evidence for 722 legal defences between 2005 and 2009. In Italy, a woman had her sentence for murdering her sister reduced after the defence lawyers presented genetic and imaging evidence that her brain’s anatomy was different to that of 10 normal women. On the other hand, in 2008 an Indian woman was convicted of poisoning her husband when a scan of brain activity allegedly revealed that she had knowledge of events surrounding her spouses death which could only have been gained through experience. Neuroscientists are now often called upon as expert witnesses and so should have a understanding of the legal and ethical implications of their testimonies.
Following this, there has been a lot of research investigating how people perceive neurological or psychological evidence. In this research, mock-jurors were asked to decide whether a virtual defendant was guilty or ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’ (NGRI). The virtual defendants had different levels of neurological or psychological evidence to support their claim of insanity. For example, in some cases medical evidence was provided proving the defendant had suffered brain damage, whilst in other cases the results of psychological analysis was given showing various types of personality disorder. This research found that around 50% of mock-jurors will find the defendant NGRI on the basis of evidence suggesting the defendant has suffered physical brain injury or neurological disease, especially if this is backed up by a brain scan. However, only about 10-12% of mock-jurors find virtual defendants with a personality disorder or psychopathy to be NGRI.
So what does this mean in real life? Today, it is estimated that 90% of UK prisoners have a diagnosable mental illness or substance abuse problem (Office for national statistics). About 1 in 7 of all prisoners in the UK are thought to have four concurrent mental health problems, often not simply associated with the time spent in prison. Also more than half the reported prisoners who commit suicide in prison exhibit symptoms of mental health problems on entering prison. Whether or not these mental health issues preceded or even contributed to their crime is unknown (and I can’t say how one would ever prove that beyond reasonable doubt), but I think that this has huge implications for the prison system. Seeing as people outside prison with mental illnesses are treated as patients rather than criminals, I think the government should focus on treating and rehabilitating, rather than punishing, prisoners who have been incarcerated on their brain’s behalf.
Post by: Natasha Bray