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Neuroscience in the Courtroom

The ABA Journal’s 2012 Issue contained an article on the use of neuroscience in the courtroom. The author, Kevin Davis, describes the situations of three people whose lives were impacted by damage to their brains.

The first person that Davis describes is Christopher Tiegreen. Tiegreen was a 16-year old who had just received his drivers license. In 2002, Tiegreen was in a collision near his home in Gainesville, Ga. His vehicle flipped several times, causing severe head injuries. Christopher suffered damage to his frontal lobe and sheared his brain stem. In essence Christopher suffered from a traumatic brain injury.

Like many other victims of traumatic brain injuriy, Tiegreen changed from a once gentle person to spurts of violent behavior. In 2009, Tiegreen walked out of his supervised living apartment and into a nearby yard. Tiegreen attacked a woman and her 20-month-old son. The state charged Chris with aggravated assault, criminal attempt to commit a felony, false imprisonment, battery, sexual battery and cruelty to a child in the third degree.

Tiegreen’s lawyers did their best to have him declared mentally incompetent. His mother explained the extent of Chris’ injuries. A neuropsychologist testified that Chris’ injuries impaired his brain function. However, the state’s psychologist told the jury that Tiegreen was focused, cooperative and capable of understanding the proceedings against him. The jury found Tiegreen competent.

The appeals are still pending, but Tiegreen’s mother was shocked at the jury’s decision. She believes that courts need to better understand the nature of brain injuries and their effects before weighing one’s legal competency and the extent of his culpability in committing the charged crimes.

Tiegreen’s case demonstrates the challenges that the legal system faces in bringing the law up to date with modern science. The concepts of neuroscience in trying to explain the brain and human behavior, clash with the legal system’s goals of determining culpability, competency and how to handle these cases.

The second example of a person who acted out due to a brain condition is a 40-year-old teacher from Virginia who inexplicably bean to have a sexual interest in children. Though he had never had these feelings previously, he collected and viewed child porn and was convicted of trying to molest his stepdaughter. The man complained of headaches the night before sentencing. At the hospital, the man discussed suicide, made sexual advances towards hospital staff, spoke of raping his landlady and urinated on himself.

When placed in an MRI scan, his brain showed a large tumor in his orbitofrontal region, an area associated with controlling social behavior. Surgeons removed the tumor and the teacher was no longer considered a threat. However, a year later, he began getting headaches again and returned to collecting pornography. A second MRI demonstrated that the tumor had regrown, and it was removed once more.

Dr. Russel Swerdlow, the doctor who treated the teacher and a neurologist, wrote about the case. He claimed that radical behavioral changes were not surprising, but rather that these changes as pedophilia. Swerdlow explains that the man was unable to act on his knowledge of what was right or wrong. Legal scholars argue that while this should factor into the man’s sentencing, there is no evidence that the tumor “made him do it.”

The last person described in the article is Andrew Chambers. Chambers, a veteran, pled guilty in 2008 to felony assault. Andrew got into a fight over money he owed, and the man pulled a knife. Chambers pulled a gun and during a struggle fired a round into the floor.

His mother was enraged because she believed that Chambers had a defense based on PTSD or brain injury. Chambers had multiple instances of head injury, as he was in the explosive ordinance division. Even though he suffered 12 concussion injuries, the VA never diagnosed him as having a traumatic brain injury.

Dr. Chrisanne Gordon, a rehabilitation medicine specialist is one of three authors who wrote a chapter about traumatic brain injury in the National Veterans Foundation’s, The Attorney’s Guide to Defending Veterans in Criminal Court. Gordon also examined Chambers after he pled guilty to the charges. Gordon explained that when she examined Chambers, he showed signs of traumatic brain injury including memory lapses, difficulty focusing, headaches and trouble making decisions. Chambers, with the help of Gordon, sought to appeal his case based on this oversight, but Ohio’s Fifth District Court of Appeals dismissed his claims.

These three people demonstrate the plethora of issues surrounding neurology and the law. From culpability in criminal trials, to sub-surface issues in personal injury cases, to veterans affairs. It’s unlikely that issues will be sorted out soon.

This is because the law contains a significant amount of politics, since its legislators that make the law and politicians who elect judges and neurology is based on science. Historically, science and politics have not played well together and the law is stuck between them. The law seeks to provide justice using the most accurate information available, yet politics does not want to give an “out” for someone to not be held culpable for his or her misconduct. Yet, trying to assign this retrospective blame seems pointless. It does nothing to change circumstances beyond the control of victims or defendants.

It’s hard to imagine that one can become a criminal after being a victim of a car accident, motorcycle collision or bicycle crash. However, that’s exactly what this article demonstrates. Brain injuries must be taken seriously. Behavioral changes can and do occur in victims of TBI. It’s time for neurology to step up and really start figuring out how to describe these changes, so that the law can at least try to keep up.

For further information, contact a Florida brain injury lawyer at the Dolman Law Group at: (727) 451-6900