“Courtroom First: Brain Scan Used in Murder Sentencing”

“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.”


The intent of the defense was to claim that the defendant was not fully culpable due his psychopathyDid this strategy work?  Of course not. In the real world, do individuals ever forgive or absolve of responsibility their victimizers upon realizing the victimizer is a psychopath?  No.

fMRI Evidence Used in Murder Sentencing

Dugan exhibits the antisocial behavior, inpulsivity, lack of remorse, and other characteristics of psychopathy in spades, says Kent Kiehl, a neuroscientist at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, and the Mind Research Network, who served as an expert witness for the defense. Dugan scored 37 out of 40 points on the standard diagnostic checklist for psychopathy, putting him in the 99.5th percentile, Kiehl says.

Kiehl conducts research on psychopathy in New Mexico state prisons in which he and colleagues collect life histories, anatomical brain scans, and fMRI scans of brain activity as inmates perform various tasks, including tests of moral reasoning. Using scanners at Northwestern University, Kiehl ran Dugan through a similar battery of tests. Kiehl testified that Dugan exhibited abnormalities similar to those he and others have reported in other psychopaths. Kiehl says he was careful not to stretch beyond what the data show. He didn’t claim, for example, that the brain scans prove that Dugan committed his crimes as a result of a brain abnormality. “It’s just one piece of evidence that his brain is different,” he says.

. . .

[from the comments] I think it would be easier to sentence such a total psychopath to death because he is missing an essential piece of whatever it is that makes us human.


I think that comment reflects the way people really think.

These legal strategists need to get out in the real world more.  Maybe take a Greyhound bus from Harrisburg, PA to Omaha, NE or just have beers at the corner bar more often.

Basically I like the idea of brain scans being brought into court — but for the exact opposite reason.  I think the psychopathic guilty would be found guilty more often than they are now.  And that they would be put away for longer sentences.  Juries would know that they weren’t dealing with daily reality.  I believe juries try very hard to walk in the shoes, place themselves in the position of the accused to try to understand the accused’s behavior.  But this assumes that the psyche they are trying to get into is similar to theirs.  This is simply not true for psychopaths.  Thus juries would have to think differently in approaching guilt and innocence in  trials of psychopaths — which I believe they could and should do.

Now obviously there could be a danger of such a situation being too prejudicial.  So this idea would need to be fine tuned, tried out with sample juries, etc. or confined to the most serious crimes or crimes with a high potential of psychopathic actors.  Perhaps it could be restricted to such felonies as pedophilia, child murder, rape and murder.

It would also open up the possibility of involuntary commitment of psychopathic individuals of danger to society, which would have different standards of evidence from a legal trial.  For example, the prolific serial killer Dr. Swango (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Swango) should have been incarcerated in a mental hospital years earlier than when he was eventually found guilty.

Michael Swango, M.D.

For some background info and links:  Neurolaw and Psychopath (http://lawneuro.typepad.com/the-law-and-neuroscience-blog/2009/08/neurolaw-and-psychopathy.html).   The Law and Neuroscience Blog seems to think that brain/genetic research on psychopaths will “change our perception of their moral and legal culpability.”  We shall see.  I predict the exact opposite.

4 thoughts on ““Courtroom First: Brain Scan Used in Murder Sentencing”

  1. Tell me what you think of this…
    I think we both agree that the mind of a psychopath is totally different from the mind of a normal person. I believe Cleckley made the argument that the psychopath does not have empathy in the sense that there are certain emotions that the psychopath does not own… such as embarrassment. However, wouldn’t this be a two way street? The normal person hasn’t a clue what it’s like to be a psychopath. It’s apparent to me that the psychopath appreciates the normal person’s reality about as well as the normal person appreciates the psychopath’s reality… which is to say, not at all.

    Think about it. Normal people are fully aware that the psychopath is ill, a physical aberration of nature, yet they ignore the evidence and execute him anyway. There is no other illness I can think of that will earn you state sponsored euthanasia because you have it. Doesn’t this behavior demonstrate that normal people lack empathy for the psychopath? Granted, psychopaths do not do a very good job at understanding normal people. Even so, there is no excuse for normal people not trying to empathize with psychopaths. After all, normal people are the ones who are supposedly healthy and not sick like the psychopath.

    What you’re trying to do here is great. People should learn how to identify psychopaths for their own safety. However, it would make a much bigger difference if every psychopath became aware he was a psychopath. I can’t help but believe my life would have been radically different had psychopathy been explained to me as a kid. Psychopathy is ubiquitous and profound, yet those whom are effected don’t even know they have it. It makes me wonder how much psycho murder is the indirect result of frustration. Continually the square psychopath tries to fit himself into a round hole yet the only reason he attempts this is because no one took the time to tell him he is, indeed, square shaped.


    • Hmmm. I think the question of psychopaths’ empathy toward normal people is actually very complex. They have no empathy in the sense of “feeling their pain.” However emotions are deeply understood. Richard Allen Davis knew exactly what he was doing when he claimed, in front of the father, that Polly Klass had begged him “just don’t do me like my Dad.” Dennis Rader knew exactly what he was doing, standing there in his nifty sports jacket ensemble, reliving his crimes in front of family members. They were twisting that emotional knife and chortling about it. Believe me, sympathy was not going to come their way.

      Now obviously not every psychopath is so extreme. Also I don’t believe their crimes were due to their psychopathy — but their psychopathy increased their criminal skill. I agree that psychopathy is ubiquitous, I might even say that psychopaths are an integral part of life (I haven’t quite made up my mind on this). So if psychopathy is common and has always been that way (presumably) what has gone wrong now? It seems that without external bounds too many psychopaths have run riot — in the financial world, in the entertainment world (mind molesting our young people, if you don’t mind my saying so), in the judicial world, etc.

      That’s an interesting point that psychopathic youth would have less frustrating lives if knowledge of psychopathy were widespread.


      • The Casey Anthony trial is to begin on May 17, 2011 and is touted as a bigger sensation than the OJ trial. I’ve read everything there is to read about the case and, no doubt, Casey Anthony is one of ours. She’s:

        short sighted
        pan sexual (judging from the lez dancing)
        compulsive liar
        poor moral judgement
        unbothered by conscience

        What if we could go back 4 years to inform 18 year old Casey that she was a psychopath? What if she was told: “Look, you have a mental impairment called psychopathy and based on that, you will likely make some really bad, impulsive, fucked-up decisions. You should be aware that your poor judgement can get you into a lot of trouble. Therefore, you need to learn to slow down before you act. Realize that your decision making process is DEFECTIVE. Learn to rely on others, who are unimpaired, to help you make sound decisions”. I cannot help but believe the whole Casey Anthony tragedy could have been avoided had this been done.


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