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AAAS Hosts Mock Trial Focused on Neuroscience in the Courtroom

Members of the jury talked among themselves about the trial ahead as they filed into the courtroom and took their seats. The scenario is straightforward: A young girl sought help from the neighbors when she locked herself out of the apartment she shared with her mother. After breaking into the apartment, the girl and her neighbors found the girl’s mother, Jane Owens, unconscious on the kitchen floor and with significant head trauma.

She was pronounced dead after reaching the hospital. Police charged Owens’ ex-boyfriend, Will Johnson, with murder after finding his fingerprints throughout the apartment and on the murder weapon. The daughter’s spare key was found in Johnson’s apartment, and Owens’ DNA was found under his nails.

The presiding judge, dressed in a robe and green and black striped bow tie, looked out at the jury. There were quite a few more members of the jury than usual, considering the jury box in the trial takes up the entire AAAS auditorium.

The “Brain on Trial” event, held 9 November, was staged as a professional development session for the current class of AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows. “Science policy is made by all three branches of the government, although less attention is usually paid to the judiciary,” AAAS Senior Program Associate Deborah Runkle explained. “This presentation focuses on how new developments in science and technology—neuroscience and neuro-imaging—may affect American jurisprudence. The program was part of the ongoing effort to educate the fellows about science policy.”

The main debate in the mock trial focused on whether or not neuro-imaging technologies introduced in the courtroom should play a part in determining issues of responsibility. Was Will Johnson able to control his emotions and plan the attack in advance, making it a case of first-degree murder? Or does the brain damage shown on an MRI suggest he is not capable of premeditation? If the jury decides the murder was an impulsive event caused by brain damage, Johnson could be convicted of second-degree murder.

The scenario is fictional, but the expert players participating on both sides were there to prove their case in the mock trial. Geoff Cheshire, assistant federal public defender for the District of Arizona, was the attorney for the defense in the mock trial. Cheshire and his expert witness, neurologist James Brewer of University of California, San Diego, satt to one side of the Honorable Paul Grimm, chief magistrate judge for the District of Maryland.

Hank Greely of the Stanford University School of Law, the attorney for the state in the mock trial, sat opposite of the defense. Michael Rafii, a neuroscientist and memories expert from the University of California, San Diego, was the state’s expert witness.

The first part of the mock trial focused on whether MRI images should be entered into the court case as evidence.

“Your honor, as the court is aware the prosecution alleges that my client, Mr. Johnson is guilty of murder in the first degree, which requires a deliberate and premeditated and willful killing,” Cheshire began. “Your honor, we intend to introduce scientific evidence through expert testimony that will show that Mr. Johnson’s brain was damaged to such an extent and degree that he would have serious difficulty establishing the requisite premeditation or deliberation to commit the crime that the people allege.”

Once the MRI was allowed as evidence, the two sides began discussing what the MRI meant and how the jury should interpret it. As neuroscience appears more frequently in the legal system, it is important that the jury understands how science is introduced and presented in a courtroom, as well as how neuroscience might affect jurisprudence.

“All of the neuro-imaging technologies are getting better faster, more interpretable,” Greely said. “It’s not so much an improvement in the machines. It’s improvement in the statistical methods used to interpret the results are really producing some results that even surprise the investigators.”

“We have real experts here. We have the judge and we have two fantastic lawyers,” Brewer said outside of the mock trial. “It’s just a pleasure for me to be a part of it because I see so much brilliance on their part.”

“This is one of the really hairy issues that’s so fun to discuss.”


Read past coverage on neuroscience and the courts.