January 26, 2010

“Neurolaw” conference questions role of science in criminal trials

Four experts on law and neuroscience discussed how advances in the study of the brain can be applied in the legal system Thursday in Harper Memorial Library.

The panel, “Neurolaw: How Brain Research Affects Criminal Responsibility,” was organized by the Chicago Justice Initiative and funded by Student Government.

In the past few years, neuroscience has shown up more in legal proceedings, due in part to the rise of the neuroscience field in the 1990s, or “the decade of the brain,” moderator Brent Garland said.

“Neuroscience is going so far, so fast, you just can’t keep up,” said Dr. Stephen Dinwiddie, director of the University’s Law and Psychiatry program.

Dinwiddie summarized why neuroscience might be relevant to criminal proceedings: If the reasons behind a criminal’s activities lie in the way his or her brain works, “does that mean we should not hold them accountable? Or does it give us more reason to lock them up?” he said.

The other panelists were Carol A. Brook, executive director of the Federal Defender Program for the Northern District of Illinois and Dr. Don Nelson, professor of clinical pharmacology at the University of Cincinnati.

The panel called for constant dialogue between scientists, public policy makers, politicians, and the general public.

Garland, who edited the volume Neuroscience and Law: Brain, Mind, and the Scales of Justice, expressed confidence in the courts and legal system. “They have seen other scientific revolutions. The law will eventually get it right. The issue is do we want to wait?” he asked.

Brook added that science canhave far-reaching legal effect. “Those are real people in the courtroom”, she said.

The panelists agreed that scientists’ understanding of the brain is still developing, and Garland warned against the “brutal ends” that can arise from the misuse and misinterpretation of scientific findings, especially as a basis for judging criminals.

“Is the science developed enough to be of use to the law? I think the answer is not yet. When will it be developed enough? Not this week,” Dinwiddle said.