Prof. Snead Speaks on Neuroscience and Law Panel

Author: Susan Good

carter snead faculty

At the recently concluded American Bar Association (ABA) annual meeting, University of Notre Dame Associate Professor of Law O. Carter Snead explained how neuroimaging has entered the civil and criminal courtroom. His comments were part of a panel discussion on “The Future of Evidence: Neuroscience and its Use in the Courtroom” (jointly sponsored by the ABA’s Sections on Science and Technology Law and Criminal Justice). Snead was joined on the panel by Northwestern University Professor of Neuroscience, Ken Paller.

Said Snead:

Neuroimaging evidence is a growing presence in civil and criminal courtrooms alike. In personal injury cases it has been proffered and admitted to show the fact (and to a lesser extent causation) of injuries, in contract disputes it has been used to demonstrate the incapacity to form a valid contract, and it has even been submitted in an attempt to show that violent video games affect the brains of children. On the criminal side, it has been offered (and admitted) in an effort to show diminished capacity to formulate the requisite mens rea, to show incompetency to stand trial, and as an adjunct to the insanity defense (most famously in the case of John Hinckley, Jr.). Most often it is introduced as part of a mitigation claim at capital sentencing to show that the defendant, though factually and legally guilty, deserves leniency because of his or her diminished moral responsibility. Most recently, neuroimaging evidence has been cited by amici in the upcoming Supreme Court cases (Sullivan v. Florida and Graham v. Florida) to argue that juveniles don’t deserve to be sentenced to life without parole because their brains are not sufficiently developed to engage in long term planning, impulse control, and the like.

For an extensive discussion and analysis of this application of neuroimaging evidence (including its unintended consequences), see Carter Snead, “Neuroimaging and the ‘Complexity’ of Capital Punishment,” 82 NYU Law Review 1265 (2007) at this link:

Snead’s research focuses on the intersection of law and bioethics. His scholarship explores the possibility, mechanisms, and wisdom of the governance of science, medicine, and biotechnology according to ethical principles.

Snead formerly served as general counsel for the President’s Council on Bioethics and as permanent observer for the U.S. government with the Council of Europe’s Steering Committee on Bioethics. He is currently serving a four-year term on UNESCO’s International Bioethics Committee.

Contact: Prof. Carter Snead, 202-607-0963(cell); 574-631-8259 (office);