Courtroom First: Brain Scan Used in Murder Sentencing

BrainScanHomerSimpsonAlexis Madrigal writes in Wired:

A defendant’s fMRI brain scan has been used in court for what is believed to be the first time.

Brain scan evidence that the defense claimed shows the defendant’s brain was psychopathic was allowed into the sentencing portion of a murder trial in Chicago, Science reported Monday. Brian Dugan, who had been convicted of the rape and murder of a 10-year-old, was sentenced to death, despite the fMRI scans.

“I don’t know of any other cases where fMRI was used in that context,” Stanford professor Hank Greely told Science.

While the possibility of using fMRI data in a variety of contexts, particularly lie detection, has bounced around the margins of the legal system for years, there are almost no documented cases of its actual use. In the 2005 case Roper v. Simmons, the Supreme Court allowed brain scans to be entered as evidence received at least one amicus brief based in part on brain scans showing that adolescent brains work differently than adult brains. But it’s not clear that the Court used that evidence in making its decision.

“The Court didn’t not rely on, or even mention, that evidence in support of its conclusion,” Greely wrote in an e-mail to

In any case, that’s a far cry, though, from using fMRI to establish the truth of testimony or that specific structures within an individual defendant’s brain are legally relevant.

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2 Comments on "Courtroom First: Brain Scan Used in Murder Sentencing"

  1. Anonymous | Nov 27, 2009 at 2:16 am |

    Psychopathy as an excuse to commit crimes? Sounds good to me.

  2. tonyviner | Nov 26, 2009 at 10:16 pm |

    Psychopathy as an excuse to commit crimes? Sounds good to me.

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