In August 1966, Charles Whitman climbed a tower at the University of Texas and fatally shot 14 people. In a note he left behind he said, “I can not rationally pinpoint any specific reason for doing this.” In the autopsy report it was noted he had a brain tumor, posing the question, was the tumor the cause of his actions?
We will never know, of course, but this question is now the focus of a young field of study to try and understand how brain mechanisms affect behavior. Looking back at the University of Texas incident, it is possible that Whitman’s brain tumor may have played a part in his violent behavior. Like DNA testing, brain scans will greatly challenge an already overwhelmed legal system.
A 3-year project, called “The Law and Neuroscience Project,” gathered scientists, legal scholars and philosophers, along with several judges. Some of the issues that will be addressed will be those anticipated such as when brain scanning images can be used and how to handle the current inmates who will now decide to challenge the new system, trying to explain away their actions because of a “brain abnormality," it also brings up the question of free will, as studies also show, those with similar brain abnormalities will not engage in the wrong behavior.
As is to be expected, the challenges have already begun, late last year; a Florida court was challenged when an inmate claimed his lawyer hurt his case by not using brain image results – showing the drug use that impaired his thinking.
While the focus may first be on the reasons behind violent crime, it may also be used in civil suits to see if there really is pain after a car accident. To be sure, there will be many challenges as this “new science,” becomes part of the judicial system.