In 1982, John Hinckley Jr.’s defense attorney used CAT scans of his brain to prove that he was not guilty by reason of insanity when he shot former President Ronald Reagan.
Since then, neuroscience has become increasingly relevant to the criminal justice system, and researchers have expressed concern that the connection between science and criminality needs more examination.
To that end, UCSB has announced that it will host the SAGE Center for the Study of Mind thanks to a $10 million grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Over the next three years, the center will use the initial $10 million grant to hold conferences and research the most effective ways the criminal justice system can utilize neuroscience.
Psychology professor Michael S. Gazzaniga, a prominent figure in the field of cognitive neuroscience, will act as the project’s director and principal investigator. Additionally, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor will serve as the honorary chair of the project.
Gazzaniga said UCSB is an ideal location for the program, due to the excellent research equipment available on campus, including the Psychology Building’s new brain scanner.
“Once it was decided that I was going to lead [the project], it made sense to do it at UCSB,” Gazzaniga said. “We have a good human brain-imaging department. We’re able to manage a national program.”
Scientists and legal scholars from 24 other research universities are also involved in the endeavor.
According to Dartmouth professor of philosophy Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, who co-directs the project with Gazzaniga, the legal scholars and neuroscientists involved in the project hope to prevent the misuse of neuroscience in the courtroom while decreasing the number of convicts who repeat the same crimes.
“Neuroscience will be able to produce some constructive results [in the courtroom],” Armstrong said. “[But] we are concerned that neuroscience may get misused. There are lawyers out there who are cherry-picking [the idea] that neuroscience will help their clients. We want to make sure that when neuroscience makes it into the courtroom, it’s good neuroscience interpreted in the right way.”
However, cognitive psychology graduate student Pete Khooshabeh, who took a seminar with Gazzaniga, said while he supports the project, he has reservations.
“I think adding another dimension to law is important, but it’s certainly not the final explanation of deviant behavior,” Khooshabeh said. “Just because it’s science it shouldn’t be the most compelling piece of evidence people should use in the court of law.”
Meanwhile, Gazzaniga said he does not think the three years covered by the grant is enough to fully explore the potential of utilizing neuroscience in courtrooms. He said he believes law schools will one day teach “neurolaw.”
“[The initial grant] is a start,” he said. “Neuroscience is an expensive habit. If we succeed, say smart things, and get some interesting work done, I’m sure it will grow from there into a much larger program.”