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Lawyers Use Imaging To Assign, Deflect Blame

August 31, 2012
Written by: , Filed in: Neuroradiology
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Whodunnit? The defendant or his tumor?

Lawyers are beginning to haul MRI and PET into court, figuratively if not—yet—literally, in order to assign or avert responsibility for the actions of criminal defendants.

Specifically, 65-year-old Italian pediatrician Domenico Mattiello, MD, faces charges of making sexual advances toward young girls. His lawyers say he never acted that way earlier in his long career and blame a 4-centimeter tumor at the base of his brain—revealed by an MRI scan.

Pietro Pietrini, MD, PhD, a molecular geneticist and psychiatrist who is compiling a report on Dr. Mattiello, told the Reuters news agency:

He was a pediatrician for 30-something years, and he saw tens of thousands of children and never had any problem. The question is why, at some point, did someone who has always behaved properly suddenly change so drastically?

A Reuters roundup of the use, and misuse, of neuroscience in the courtroom notes a similar U.S. case from 2002. A 40-year-old, married schoolteacher suddenly became obsessed with sex, began to collect child pornography, and made sexual advances toward his stepdaughter. He was convicted of pedophilia.

Scans revealed a tumor in a part of the brain involved in decision-making. When it was removed, so were his pedophilic tendencies, Reuters reported.

Reuters also noted:

  • Recent studies have found that MRI scans reveal distinctive structures in the brains of psychopathic rapists and murders.
  • Two U.S. companies, No Lie MRI and Cephos Corp., offer fMRI to prosecutors and other lawyers for supposed lie-detection services.
  • Lawyers for Brian Dugan, who pleaded guilty in Illinois to raping and killing a 10-year-old girl, used scans of his brain activity to argue that he suffered from mental malfunctions and should be spared the death penalty. (Illinois abolished capital punishment, making the question moot.)
  • In Mumbai, India, a woman was convicted of murder based on circumstantial evidence and a highly questionable “brain electrical oscillations signature profiling” test that purportedly confirmed her guilt.
  • Lawyers in several cases have put forth as a mitigating circumstance the claim that the accused carried a variant of a gene called MAO-A that has been linked by scientists to violent behavior.

Said Teneille Brown, JD, a professor of law at the University of Utah:

Neuroscience is being used by serious science in real labs, but the people trying to apply it in courts are not those same people. So they’re taking something that looks very objective, that looks like gold-standard science, but then morphing it into a forensic use it wasn’t developed for.

And Colin Blakemore, PhD, a professor of neuroscience at Oxford University in England, commented: “It makes one wonder about the notion of responsibility.”


* * *

California’s Legislature unanimously passed a law requiring notification of women whose mammograms reveal dense breast tissue. The odds look good that the governor will sign it; see our Facebook page for details.

Related seminar: UCSF Neuro and Musculoskeletal Imaging (all-new release)


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