Fordham University’s Law School is located, interestingly enough, at Lincoln Center in midtown Manhattan. It shares its building with Fordham’s School of Social Work.
Recently Professor Deborah Denno of the law school founded a center for Law and Neuroscience there, seeking to educate the legal profession and the public on the role of neuroscience in the courtroom. I attended a Continuing Legal Education seminar there in February.
The seminar, which ran most of the day, was interdisciplinary, consisting of law professors, judges and scientists. Among the law professors was Erin Murphy, a legal commentator for CNN and CSNBC. The judges included Jed Rakoff of the Southern District of New York, a noted critic of federal sentencing guidelines. Featured among the scientists were Ruben Gur and Donald Plaff.
Much of the discussions dealt with the admissibility and forensic value of evidence involving neuroscience. As Erin Murphy noted, much of this evidence admitted by judges had more to do with judges’ political views than scientific standards.
Even among the expert panelists, there is considerable debate as to the value of such current evidence, which comes mainly from such high-tech depictions of the brain as PET scans. Much of this hesitation came from the spotted history of psychological evidence in the courtroom.
Many psychological theories accepted by courts over the past century have since been scientifically discredited. Such medically accepted practices as lobotomy, which promised to eliminate violent impulses from the brain, are now rightly looked on with horror.
In truth, no area of health care has been as sloppily handled as the realm of mental health. Misdiagnoses and wrong prescriptions are standard practices among psychiatrists, pediatricians and primary care physicians.
Neuroscience has developed considerably, with assists from technology, over the past two decades. Yet a number of the panelists were skeptical about its forensic value. Some argued that PET scans and MRIs give little insight into past behaviors of persons, a question that is particularly crucial in cases where mental defenses are raised.
Many deemed such scans to be poor indicators of future behavior. Dr. Plaff conjectured that neuroscience would not be an effective source of evidence for another fifty years.
Yet our courts are consistently bogged down with problems of psychologically ill persons. This happens time and again in criminal, family and civil cases. If society is to move forward, then mental illness must stop being a stigma, psychological healthcare must join mainstream healthcare and psychology must, at least in several areas, develop the precision of other sciences.
The legal profession and public would do well to be made aware of the work that is being done in the field of law and neuroscience.