Stefani Albertani was put into prison on a life sentence for killing her sister and setting fire to the corpse, as well as attempted murder on her parents, according to the Guardian. Later on, Judge Luisa lo Gatto re-opened the case because of new evidence based upon brain scans and genetics. Albertani’s sentenced was reduced to 20 years.
Cases like Stefani Albertani have been used more frequently in court, for better or for worse. So much so, that it now has a name: neuroforensics. Neuroforensics is the application of neuropsychiatry to legal and criminal domains, according to the Medical School at University of Pennsylvania. This seems to be the new and popular argument used by many lawyers. Nita Farahany, a law professor and director of Duke University’s Initiative for Science and Society, stated that the “my brain made me do it” argument was used in 420 court cases, according to judge opinions. The rising use of neuroforsenics in court cases proves that this science is relevant.
The science of neuroforensics started with the study of psychopath’s brains. Previous studies show that the structure of psychopath’s brains are different than others brains. Creepy, right? There have been significant studies that show psychopaths have a hardtime empathizing with others as the anterior rostral prefrontal cortex and temporal poles do not function like other peoples, according to Reuters. Meaning, psychopaths do not understand relationships the way that we do. This is why psychopaths can be argued in court as ill or having a brain disease, and it is debated upon whether or not they are criminally insane, according to Psychology Today.
The criminally insane debate reflects the argument of if someone is shaped by nature or nurture. Nature being one’s brain structure and nurture being one’s environment while growing up. Many people believe that we are not defined by our brains. The idea that one is responsible for their actions is something that rings true since one often hears this saying from authority figures. Many doctors agree as well. “Brains don’t kill people. People kill people,” Dr. Ruben Gur, a professor of psychiatry and neurology at the University of Pennsylvania, said. Which one has more influence? The arguments go round and round.
There are many studies and testimonies stating that one’s brain structure does not affect one’s actions. Some people state that they are nonviolent psychopaths. James Fallon, a neuroscientist and nonviolent psychopath being one of them. Fallon, wrote a book called “The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist’s Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain.” Fallon had a loving and supporting family growing up and married his high school sweetheart. And though he is a psychopath, he has never killed another person. This is a prime example of one’s environment dictating how one acts.
As a result of infinite studies on the brain, it raises the questions: “Does my brain dictate what I do?” “Do we have free will in what we do, if our brains truly dictate what we do?” Does my environment as a child truly affect who I become later on in life? These questions are becoming more and more prevalent in the criminology world.
Some scientists believe that neuroscience research is not ready to be used in court cases. This is probably because it started with murder cases like Stefani Albertani but it gradually expanded to less serious cases such as robbery. The expansion may be happening too fast and too soon but it is still being used. According to Scientific American, The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine met to discuss what neuroforensics will look like in the future. The technology is developing, but for better or worse it is going to end up in the courtroom.
All of this is crazy, but it made me question how we use these studies in the courtroom; they should be taken with a grain of salt. A New York Times article written by John Monterosso and Barry Schwartz states, “It’s important that we don’t succumb to the allure of neuroscientific explanations and let everyone off the hook.” Meaning that in the end, we are responsible for our actions regardless of brain structure. This needs to be considered in the courtroom.
Perhaps, the study of brain structure should only be used in training or in teaching. The understanding of our brains has led to breakthroughs in understanding human behavior, which has benefitted many people. However, there is the question of where the line is. The brain offers an infinite amount of ways people can study behaviors, but from what we currently know there is a limit to what the brain says about human behavior.