Putting “Brains on Trial”–A New PBS Series

Guest post by Kayt Sukel

How might the field of neuroscience change the U.S. legal system? It’s a broad question; as technology advances, neuroscientific study has the potential to alter all aspects of a legal case, starting from how we determine a perpetrator’s true intent to helping judges hand down appropriate and just sentences. But the key word here is potential, and in a new two-part PBS series, Brains in Trial, actor and science enthusiast Alan Alda explores just what that potential may be.

As Alda points out in the beginning of the series, a criminal trial is “meant to get to the bottom of things.” To illustrate how neuroscience, particularly brain imaging studies, may change the legal process, Brains on Trial uses the fictional trial of a young man who shoots a store clerk’s wife during a convenience store robbery. As both the prosecuting and defense attorney present evidence, the jurors deliberate on his guilt, and the judge contemplates sentencing, the series segues into the laboratories  of neuroscientists including Kent Kiehl, Elizabeth Phelps, Jack Gallant, Jay Giedd, Larry Steinberg and Marcel Just to explain that scientists are learning about lie detection, memory decoding, intention, psychopathy, emotion, and criminal recidivism. Renowned bioethicist (and Neuroscience 2013 David Kopf Lecturer) Nita Farahany also weighs in on where and how neuroscience may one day apply to the legal process.

While Brains on Trial presents some fascinating research, the series does a good job of not overdramatizing what the science can actually do for us at this point. Early in the series, Farahany cautions that brain imaging results can be quite prejudicial—jurors can be “overconfident” in new science and grab on to it in hopes of not having to do the hard work of determining a defendant’s guilt. Later in the series, as Alda talks with Jack Gallant about his work trying to create a brain/world dictionary to help  determine if a witness or perpetrator has in fact seen a crime scene, he states his impression is that these studies just give prosecutors and defense attorneys “one more thing to argue about.” Their comments fall into line with what many legal and science scholars have said about neuroscience having little impact on personal responsibility and the law. (See also Dana’s briefing paper “Will Neuroscience Challenge the Legal Concept of Criminal Responsibility?”)

Where the series really gains traction, however, is in the discussion of how neuroscience may influence sentencing decisions. As seen in the landmark 2005 Supreme Court case Roper v. Simmons, it already has. The Supreme Court found the death penalty unconstitutional for crimes committed by juveniles—and that opinion was heavily influenced by research into the immaturity of the teenage brain. As Alda visits the lab of Giedd and Steinberg, he learns more about how the teenage brain develops as well as how it is influenced by peer pressure. Farahany, in response, says that the legal system draws “hard and bright lines” around the age of 18 today—and questions whether that’s the right way to do it.

While Brains on Trial offers no hard and fast answers about how today’s science may shape tomorrow’s courtroom, the series does thoughtfully examine where and when brain science one day should enter the courtroom—and whether it really has the power to improve the U.S. legal system in the future.

Brains on Trial will be shown in two parts: Wednesdays, Sept. 11 and Sept. 18, at 10 p.m. ET on most PBS stations. To learn more, visit http://brainsontrial.com.

– Kayt Sukel

One response

  1. I am moved to write after watching “Brains on Trial”.
    21 years ago a 15 year-old beat, stabbed and raped my 86 year-old mother. There were 4 probable causes of death. He claimed that he wanted her car and would kill her if she resisted giving it to him.
    He was sentenced to 35 years in prison without parol after being tried as an adult.
    We have be notified by the victims assistance program each time he spiraled deeper into trouble within the prison system. He is now in the worst of Texas prisons, where the worst offenders are housed.
    This program has given me further insight into the brain of troubled teenagers who commit crimes. I was thankful our family did not have to deal with the issue of the death penalty, which he might have received had he actually been old enough. But I have mourned not just for my mother’s suffering, not just for our family’s suffering, or even his own family. I knew he would not just pay for what he did, but would become a victim himself and more than pay for what he did.
    If studying the brains of teenagers and teenage criminals will make a difference in how we perceive dispensing justice, then I am for it. Even though we have suffered deeply, it does not warrant removing every chance, every hope that that young person might have to discover real remorse and recovery. Maybe there was only the thinnest thread of possiblility for this troubled, more than troubled, young person, but it has been a great sadness of mine that it was lost to him the moment sentence was passed.

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