The Law to Neuroscience: Hold Up

If you were unable to attend the Neuroscience and Law event in D.C. in April, you can now watch it in its entirety by viewing the webcast on the Dana Foundation website. Focusing on the use of neuroscience research in the courtroom, the event was part of the Neuroscience & Society series sponsored by American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Dana Foundation.

Featured panelists included Dana Alliance and Dana Foundation Board member Steve Hyman, director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard; Owen Jones, director of the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience and a law professor at Vanderbilt University; and Honorable Barbara Rothstein, U.S. District Judge from the Western District of Washington state.

Neuroscience and Law photoPhoto of Steven E. Hyman, Owen D. Jones, and Judge Barbara Rothstein [Credit: AAAS]

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World Science Festival in NYC

WSF2 Logo

Tickets for the World Science Festival in New York City go on sale to the general public today. The series of events will take place May 29-June 2, and will cover topics from many scientific fields. Of the neuroscience offerings, be sure to check out Dana grantee Nicholas Schiff and others in a discussion about consciousness, Nita Farahany’s talk about neuroscience and the law, and Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives member James Watson’s lecture about his work on DNA and beyond.

For a complete list of events and to purchase tickets online, visit the World Science Festival’s website.

– Ann L. Whitman

Neuroscience and the Law Panel

Please join us in DC on April 25th for a free panel discussion on neuroscience and the law. Co-sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Dana Foundation as part of their Neuroscience & Society series, this event is open to the public.

Research on the brain has shed new light on the relationship between our thoughts, feelings, and behavior. These advances have not been lost on the legal system, where they raise serious issues for the law, from matters relating to the admissibility of evidence to decisions about criminal culpability. Speakers at this event will address what neuroscience can and cannot tell us about human behavior; the ways in which neuroscience is entering the courtroom; and the challenges this emerging knowledge poses for the trier of fact.

The panel includes Dana Alliance member Alan Leshner, CEO of AAAS and Executive Publisher of Science; Dana Foundation Board member Steven E. Hyman, Director of the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard; Owen Jones, New York Alumni Chancellor’s Chair in Law and Professor of Biological Sciences at Vanderbilt University; and Honorable Barbara Rothstein, Senior Judge, U.S. District Court, District of Columbia.

You can RSVP to the event here.

– Ann L. Whitman

Neuroscience and Law: Promise and Perils

On Tuesday, April 16, neuroethics enthusiasts can attend a mini-symposium in San Francisco, “Neuroscience and Law: Promise and Perils.” Hosted by the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, and part of its annual meeting (April 13-16), this session includes four talks that address “recent and exciting developments at the intersection of cognitive neuroscience and law.” Two of the talks will be given by Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives members B.J. Casey, Ph.D., and Martha Farah, Ph.D.

Dr. Casey, director of Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology at Weill Medical College of Cornell University will speak about the legal implications of our increasing understanding of adolescent decision-making and risk-taking. She discussed her research on this topic in a recent Dana Foundation briefing paper, “A Delicate Balance: Risks, Rewards, and the Adolescent Brain.”

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Eyewitnesses Are Trouble

Scientists have decades of research showing that our memories for events are sketchy—even the powerful-feeling flashbulb sort. But the annals of law courts (and advocate websites) continue to carry reports of false identifications leading to wrongful convictions and unearned prison terms. Why?

It’s not because judges don’t see it. “The mind is not a video camera,” retired Arizona superior court judge Ronald Reinstein told us during the recent annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). "Memory is very fragile; it can deteriorate, it can be corrupted—and we see this every day in the court."

“In the last couple of years, the courts are talking about [problems with eyewitness testimony] more and more, but most still have not caught up,” he said. One problem is accuracy of the original memory: for example, if the perpetrator showed a gun during the crime, witnesses often miss or misinterpret other parts of the scene. Another problem he described is the many variables involved in asking a witness to choose someone from a police lineup. For example, the people chosen as “fillers,” filling out a physical lineup or included in a photo spread, can influence how likely a witness will be to make a mistake. He showed us a photo of one lineup where only one man, a filler, was wearing shorts. He was chosen, partly because he stood out as different, and partly because at the time of the crime, the perpetrator was wearing shorts.

The chance that witnesses will ID the wrong person increases when they are shown a group of photos (“simultaneous lineup”) rather than one at a time (“sequential lineup”), according to the initial results of a field study done by the American Judicature Society. Witnesses identified a filler as the culprit 18 percent of the time when they were shown a simultaneous lineup, and only 12 percent of the time when shown a sequential one. Other influences on witnesses are what exact instructions they are given, whether they are asked how confident they are about the ID, and who is administering the lineup (the investigator or a neutral person).

“We’re not saying police are trying to cue the witness, but [advising them] to avoid unintentional influences,” Reinstein said. Some reforms this study and others suggest are mandatory recording of the ID procedure (video or audio), better instructions, better selection of fillers, and double-blind presentation.

One court that has caught up is that of New Jersey; Reinstein cited the 2011 case State v. Henderson, which updated the state's test for evaluating and admitting eyewitness identifications in criminal proceedings (here’s a summary of the case by the Library of Congress and the detailed report of the special master’s investigation). AAAS itself offers judicial seminars on emerging issues in neuroscience, including memory and the limits of brain-scanning technology (a Dana Foundation grant helps support this).

As for juries, Judge Reinstein offered a bit of good news: It appears that “the CSI effect” may not exist. That’s the idea that watching fictional sleuths use magical technology to solve every crime beyond the shadow of a doubt could have lured jurors into thinking that they should demand that level of technology–and surety—in a real courtroom. “I don’t believe there’s a true CSI effect,” Reinstein said.

–Nicky Penttila

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