Brain Scan Used In Murder Trial Sentencing

The fMRI brain scan of accused murderer Brian Dugan was introduced in the sentencing portion of his murder trial. The defense used the scan to try to demonstrate that the defendant's brain was psychopathic.

The debate over whether or not to use fMRI evidence has several dimensions. The first is whether reliable evidence can be obtained. On that score, fMRI appears to perform well. In a very small number of studies, researchers have identified lying in study subjects with accuracy ranging from 76 percent to over 90 percent. The real doubts begin to surface about whether the data will be good outside the laboratory in real settings.

“When you build a model based on people in the laboratory, it may or may not be that applicable to someone who has practiced their lie over and over, or someone who has been accused of something,” Elizabeth Phelps, a neuroscientist at New York University told Wired.com in March. “I don’t think that we have any standard of evidence that this data is going to be reliable in the way that the courts should be admitting.”

The brain scan was not admitted into evidence during the trial; it is recognized that courts are more lenient in introducing material in the sentencing portion of capital cases.

Science fiction writers have been fascinated with the idea that technology that looks at brain activity could be used during a trial. For example, recall the highly visual veridicator from H. Beam Piper's 1962 novel Little Fuzzy. Robert Heinlein had a go at the idea in his 1954 novel The Star Beast:

"Mrs. Donahue, tell us what happened."

She sniffed. " Well! I was lying down, trying to snatch a few minutes rest; I have so many responsibilities, clubs and charitable committees and things.

Greenberg was watching the truth meter over her head. The needle wobble restlessly, but did not kick over into the red enough to set off the warning buzzer...
(Read more about the truth meter)

From Wired.

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