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Neurocriminology

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The WSJ's Saturday Essay this week is by U. Penn. Professor Adrian Raine on neuroscience and crime.  This is not (and not intended to be) a balanced look at the research with its limitations and criticisms.  Raine is an advocate.

Take the case of Donta Page, who in 1999 robbed a young woman in Denver named Peyton Tuthill, then raped her, slit her throat and killed her by plunging a kitchen knife into her chest. Mr. Page was found guilty of first-degree murder and was a prime candidate for the death penalty.

Working as an expert witness for Mr. Page's defense counsel, I brought him to a lab to assess his brain functioning. Scans revealed a distinct lack of activation in the ventral prefrontal cortex--the brain region that helps to regulate our emotions and control our impulses.

In testifying, I argued for a deep-rooted biosocial explanation for Mr. Page's violence. As his files documented, as a child he suffered from poor nutrition, severe parental neglect, sustained physical and sexual abuse, early head injuries, learning disabilities, poor cognitive functioning and lead exposure. He also had a family history of mental illness. By the age of 18, Mr. Page had been referred for psychological treatment 19 times, but he had never once received treatment. A three-judge panel ultimately decided not to have him executed, accepting our argument that a mix of biological and social factors mitigated Mr. Page's responsibility.

Raine apparently considers this to be a correct result.  It is not, IMHO, unless Page's condition actually rendered him lacking in free will, which I very much doubt.

A more profound understanding of the early biological causes of violence can help us take a more empathetic, understanding and merciful approach toward both the victims of violence and the prisoners themselves. It would be a step forward in a process that should express the highest values of our civilization.
In this passage we see the danger.  Some people slip much too easily from explaining to excusing.  A scientific test that merely shows some factor correlated with a propensity to commit acts of violence should not be regarded as mitigating.  As long as a person has the choice to commit the crime or not, he should be held fully responsible for the choice.  Letting murderers and rapists off easy on weak excuses is most definitely not "the highest values of our civilization."  It is a step on the downward spiral.

Oh, and one more thing.  Note in the last sentence of the first block quote above, Raine says "our argument."  He was a witness in this case, not a lawyer.  An expert witness is not supposed to be an advocate.  He is not supposed to make arguments.  Yet too many expert witnesses see themselves as full members of the defendant's advocacy team rather than objective scientists.

3 Comments

"A more profound understanding of the early biological causes of violence can help us take a more empathetic, understanding and merciful approach toward both the victims of violence and the prisoners themselves. It would be a step forward in a process that should express the highest values of our civilization."

What a disgusting comment. First of all, I fail to see how any of this nonsense is more "merciful toward [] victims." Second, what is it about liberals that they feel the need to puff up their policy preferences in terms such as "the highest values of our civilization." Whatever one thinks of mitigation evidence in horrible crimes such as the one describes, the idea that the expenditure of scarce resources to put this dressed up psychobabble in front of factfinders ain't anywhere close to reflecting "the highest values of our civilization." More likely, it's a symptom of a society lacking the moral courage to call evil evil and to make a fetish of whiny excuses for outrageous behavior. The spectacle of a long drawn out hearing to "humanize" a monstrous killer would be laughable if not so ugly.

We see this sort of nonsense from the bench as well. Judge Barkett's dissent in the Warren Hill case is an example. Hill took an IQ test in the second grade and received a 77. Somehow some "experts" explained that away. He also managed to pass two Navy advancement exams. Yet, in the face of Hill's burden to prove mental retardation, Judge Barkett proclaims Hill's mental retardation. Barkett's eagerness to save Hill from his richly deserved execution is as unseemly as it is transparent.

Of course, Judge Barkett has a history of this sort of thing. Here's a quote from a dissent she joined in a capital case:

"Even though we are aware of and sensitive to these contrasting emotions, our review must be neutral and objective. This case is not simply a homicide case, it is also a social awareness case. Wrongly, but rightly in the eyes of Dougan, this killing was effectuated to focus attention on a chronic and pervasive illness of racial discrimination and of hurt, sorrow, and rejection. Throughout Dougan's life his resentment to bias and prejudice festered. His impatience for change, for understanding, for reconciliation matured to taking the illogical and drastic action of murder. His frustrations, his anger, and his obsession of injustice overcame reason. The victim was a symbolic representative of the class causing the perceived injustices."

This drivel comes from the same liberal mindset from which Mr. Raine comes. A bending over backward response to horrible horrible criminal acts.

By the way, when Barkett was nominated by Bill Clinton to the federal bench, this quote was well-known to the Democrat Senate caucus. They voted her in anyway. They ought to be utterly ashamed of themselves. They're not.

[Pb & jelly ≠ lead & jelly]

:"A three-judge panel ultimately decided not to have him executed,
accepting our argument that a mix of biological and social factors
mitigated Mr. Page's responsibility.":

To the contrary, may I submit the radical proposition
that upon conviction of a crime, the perpetrator
himself accrues plenary responsibility!

Does U. Penn. Prof. Adrian Raine advocate the apprehension and
conviction of the long list of those who share the criminal "responsibility"?

Since the answer is negative, then Prof. Darrow [Raine] succeeded in
lessening the deserved punishment of the murderer by shifting the blame
to others
, but the responsibility and punishment to no one.

Outrageously immoral.

~Adamakis

These types of studies are very interesting, but unless they result in some sort of "treatment" to prevent future criminal activity, they are not of much use in sentencing and/or punishment.

Regarding being "retarded", while I understand the general gist that mentally less acute are perhaps somewhat less culpable, does the opposite hold true that the criminal genius (See Unabomber) is perhaps more culpable?

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