fMRI Evidence Used in Murder Sentencing

CLLB Abstract Prepared by Michael Chernicoff

The defense lawyer for Brian Dugan, an Illinois man convicted of raping and killing a 10-year-old girl, used fMRI brain scans as evidence during the sentencing phase of his trial show that their client should be spared the death penalty because he has a brain disorder. The defense argued that Dugan was born with a mental illness – psychopathy. This, said the defense, should be a mitigating factor since it impaired his ability to control his behavior.

Dugan scored a 37 out of 40 on the standard diagnostic checklist for psychopathy, placing him in the 99½ percentile. Dugan exhibits antisocial behavior, impulsivity, lack of remorse, and other characteristics of psychopathy, according to Kent Kiehl, a neuroscientist at the University of New Mexico. Kiehl did not say that Dugan murdered as a result of a brain abnormality, but commented that, “It’s just one piece of evidence that his brain is different.” Jonathan Brodie, a psychiatrist at New York University testified for the prosecution saying that the scans were not relevant in this case.

After one juror initially held out from the death penalty, the jury found Dugan guilty and sentenced him to death.Although evidence of brain abnormalities have been previously introduced during the sentencing phase of murder cases, and PET scans used to show abnormalities consistent with mental illness in court, Dugan’s case may be the first one for fMRI. It is hard to know what effect this evidence had on the jury.

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