Can A Psychopath’s Brain Teach Us Anything About Justice?

Let’s say you read about a man who had broken into an apartment and, upon being surprised by a young woman living there, proceeded to rape her and then stab her to death. What should happen to him? I doubt anyone would say that he doesn’t deserve the full extent of the law — if not the death penalty, then at least a life sentence in the harshest, most secure prison available to prevent him from ever hurting another soul.

But what if you found out that this same man had grown up in a terrible ghetto? That he had been exposed to toxic chemicals as a child? That he had been abused so much as a child that he had brain damage? That he had been abandoned by his parents? That he, himself, had been raped as a young boy? Would that change your opinion of how he should be punished for his terrible crimes?

That’s the conundrum raised by the field of neurocriminology, which uses brain imaging to study the brains of violent criminals with the hopes of better understanding why they’re prone to destructive behavior. One of the leaders in this field is Adrian Raine, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and his research has convinced him that irregularities in a person’s brain, and other factors outside of his or her control, can lead the person to become violent criminals. (The example at the beginning of this article is that of Donta Page, who raped and killed Peyton Tuthill in 1999. Raine testified on the defense’s behalf, and Page was subsequently spared the death penalty.)

However, this raises thorny questions about justice. If someone is driven to become a psychopath by factors completely outside of their control — biological, sociological, etc. — to what extent can they be held accountable for their actions if they are, in some fundamental way, incapable of acting any differently? And how do we answer this question without downplaying or dismissing, in any way, the very real damage that they’ve caused, and the very real threat they pose to society at large — not to mention larger issues like that of free will?

Dr. Raine recently appeared on NPR’s “Fresh Air” (transcript) for a fascinating interview with Terry Gross in which he explains his methodology and findings, the personality and charm(!) of psychopaths, and the deep conflict that he feels with this subject, even after all of his research, which he lays out here:

The key question is this: Simply put, if bad brains do cause bad behavior, if brain dysfunction raises the odds that somebody will become a criminal offender, a violent offender, and if the causes of the brain dysfunction come relatively early in life — and that’s what I argue for; there’s a whole host of factors we can go into here — but if that’s true, then should we fully hold that adult individual responsible when the root causes of its behavior came early in life, well beyond its control?

Now, I’ve got to be careful here. There’s no destiny here. Biology is not destiny, and it’s more than biology, and there’s lots of factors that we’re talking about here. And one factor, like prefrontal dysfunction or low heart rate, doesn’t make you a criminal offender. But what if all the boxes were checked? You know, what if you had birth complications and you were exposed to toxins and you had a low resting heart rate, and you had the gene that raises the odds of violence, et cetera, et cetera, stuff happening early on in life, and you’re not responsible for that?

Then how in the name of justice can we really hold that individual as responsible as we do do, and punish them as much as we do, including death? That’s the question that neurocriminology, this emerging body of evidence, is posing for the judicial system who are increasingly becoming interested in the interface between neuroscience and the law.

Adding an additional layer to Raine’s own personal conflict is that he, too, has been the victim of violent crime (his throat was slit during a failed burglary attempt). When Gross asks him about this, and how being a victim colors his views on punishing violent criminals, his response is fascinating:

I’m a Jekyll and Hyde. So there’s a Dr. Jekyll inside of me that’s done the research, seen these risk factors, done longitudinal studies, documented these early risk factors beyond the individual’s control that moves them into a criminal way of life, and that Dr. Jekyll is saying, you know, you can’t ignore this. You can’t turn a blind eye to the biology of violence and the social factors too. But there’s a Mr. Hyde inside of me ranting and raving and saying, look, I don’t want sob stories. I don’t want excuses. There’s a cause for all behavior. We can always find a cause for behavior. It comes from the brain: So what? What about the victim? What about how they feel? And what about that sense of retribution? You know, what about deterrence? I mean, I go backwards and forwards on this and, you know, I bet I’ll change my mind again at some point in time.


The scientist inside of me says, you know, that deterrence aspect — especially to capital punishment, you know, that’s not working, and I don’t think the science really shows it too, but how can I say it? I mean there’s a part of me that says, you know, it’s an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and a pound of flesh, that you know, there has to be accountability here. My throat was slit, his throat should be slit. That’s just how you feel as a victim. Again, I’m not proud of this. I’m not proud to say that. But it’s the truth. You know, kids need to be socialized and punished for bad behavior, and doesn’t that also apply for us adults, you know? If you buy in to the arguments that Dr. Jekyll inside of me says, then all bets are off. Nobody’s responsible. You can’t have that. That’s what Mr. Hyde says. That’s what he says.

The conundrum raised by Raine’s research is one of the reasons why I find the death penalty deeply problematic. Yes, there may be those black-and-white cases where it’s very clear that the perpetrator was acting with full agency, with full awareness of their actions. However, how many cases exist where someone couldn’t, at a fundamental level, do otherwise? Where those factors outside of their control — a bad upbringing, childhood trauma, imbalances in their brain chemistry — conspired together, such that it was only a matter of time? Is it really justice to take the life of such a person, even in light of how abominable their actions were?

But, as Raine emphatically points out, we can’t ignore the victims and minimize the very real pain and trauma that they and their loved ones experience as a result of the actions of these disturbed individuals. Justice certainly demands that they experience restitution and closure, that their lives are put right as much as is possible. Nor can we allow concepts like personal responsibility and accountability to be undermined, to the detriment of society as a whole.

What’s more, how do we balance our need for justice with the awful reality that, but for a few changes in our own situation, we might not have turned out all that differently from that murderer sentenced to death row? Raine himself had a rough childhood, and in a moment of reflection during the interview, asks “It makes you wonder, you know, what put me on one side of the bars in those four years in top-security prison when I was interviewing someone, when maybe with a different life course and other factors in my life, it could have flipped just the other way around?” That’s a sobering question, and one that, as Raine’s research reveals, we may need to ask ourselves more often as we seek to hand down justice.

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