6177341636_7902d24a35_zIn the present legal system, when a criminal stands in front of the judge’s bench, the legal system asks “Is this person blameworthy?”  Currently, in the majority of cases where behavior is attributed to biology, the system says that a person is not culpable.  If there is no obvious biological problem, the legal system attributes one’s actions to free will.  Given that recent brain research is proving resoundingly that a large part of human behavior is beyond conscious volition – even in sane, mentally healthy individuals, this is not really a reasonable way to construct a legal system says David Eagleman, in his book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain.

He tells of Charles Whitman, who, in August of 1966, took the elevator to the top floor of the University of Texas tower in Austin.  At the top, he killed the receptionist with the butt of his rifle, shot at two families of tourists coming up the stairs, and, then, randomly fired on pedestrians on the ground below killing thirteen and wounding thirty three.  Whitman was killed on the scene by police.

When his home was investigated, it was discovered that, in the hours before his rampage, Whitman had murdered his mother and stabbed his wife to death in her sleep.   He left a suicide note, in which he requested that his brain be autopsied and wrote about killing his wife:

It was after much thought that I decided to kill my wife, Kathy, tonight….I love her dearly, and she has been a fine wife to me as any man could ever hope to have.  I cannot pinpoint any specific reason for doing this…

In the autopsy, it was determined that Whitman had a brain tumor about the size of a nickel pressing on his thalamus, hypothalamus, and amygdala.  The amygdala is known to be the emotional regulator, especially with fear and aggression.

Eagleman, who is also director of Baylor College of Medicine’s Initiative on Neuroscience and Law, says that blameworthiness is not even a pertinent question to ask.  He writes:

My argument in this chapter has not been to redefine blameworthiness; instead it is to remove it from the legal argot.  Blameworthiness is a backward-looking concept that demands the impossible task of untangling the hopelessly complex web of genetics and environment that constructs the trajectory of a human life.  Consider, for example, that all known serial killers were abused as children. Does this make them less blame worthy? Who cares?  It’s the wrong question to ask….We still need to warehouse him.  We still need to keep him off of the streets….

The concept and word to replace blameworthiness is modifiability, a forward looking term that asks ‘What can we do from here?’  Is rehabilitation available? If so, great.  If not, will the punishment of a prison sentence modify future behavior? If so, send to prison.  If punishment won’t help, then take the person under state control for the purposes of incapacitation, not retribution.

Eagleman suggests that a biological understanding of behavior based on neuroscience incorporated into the legal system would improve it and would not exculpate criminals.  He advocates an “evidence-based, neural compatible social policy instead of one based on shifting and provably bad intuitions.”

To those who may think it is unfair to take such a scientific approach to sentencing, Eagleman says:

As it stands now, ugly people receive longer sentences than attractive people, psychiatrists have no capacity to guess which sex offenders will reoffend; and our prisons are over crowded with drug addicts who could more usefully be dealt with by rehabilitation rather than incarceration.

image source:  https://www.flickr.com/photos/75745191@N00/

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  1. Stephen Gemmell Reply

    Hi Debbie. Thank you. Like Tony I am drawn to compassion, heart-felt sorrow and forgiveness. For me though, this is also about awareness; my sorrow stems, I guess, from the tragic inadequacy of the plea on the suicide note. Awareness and intervention before tragedy, that is what is so desparately need. And why this blog and the work of those like David Eagleman is so important. Take care, Stephen

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Good point, Stephen. Awareness, education, and intervention would be beneficial BEFORE any one gets to the point where they have commited such a violent crime. Individuals have to feel comfortable seeking help and assistance has to be more readily available. It has to be easy and competent. Sounds like the overhaul needed for all medical services.

  2. Debbie,

    As I was reading your article, I felt a deep compassion for the gentleman who killed his wife and the many incarcerated felons. I believe that what is spoken about here provides a vehicle for forgiveness. People can be punished for their crimes with the vindictiveness of revenge entering the picture once we realize that most people wouldn’t commit the crimes their accused of out of free will. Biological and/or environmental factors weigh heavily on their decisions to act the way they do. Now if we can just change the attitude of the world to accept this view.


    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      I agree with your comment, Tony. This is the basis of Egleman’s point, I believe. It should not matter to the legal system as to “Why.” Regardless of the answer, we still have to have to protect society. This allows us to have more compassion and forgiveness, I believe, and to seek more options for rehabilitation instead of retribution. Vindictiveness and revenge benefit no one. The “why” matters when it comes to knowing how to help the person change the behavior.

  3. What a challenging and worthwhile subject you’ve chosen to write about! Bio-imperatives and genetic predispositions do seem to impel much of behavior. On the other hand, people can and do change.

    One reason why Charles Whitman’s case is complex is because even though his glioblastoma would have impaired his impulse control, there were many environmental factors determining that those impulses would be aimed toward extreme harm. He was a victim of physical abuse, and had adopted abusive behavior toward his wife. He was using amphetamines. His parents had been recently and contentiously divorced. Much of his life was coming to a dead end, since he had been court-martialed (though discharged) from the marines for conduct. His scholarship was revoked after he killed a deer and skinned it in his dorm room shower. Behaviorally, he was a killer in training, like Charles Manson. Ironically and tragically, if he had not killed, the tumor would have soon killed him.

    I do agree with the previous gentleman that compassion, which in correctional practice would be more emphasis on rehabilitation instead of only retribution, could make such a big difference.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Mikey, you never cease to amaze me at how much you know about odd things! I bet you are a whiz at Trivial Pursuit. All of that information you relay was not in the book. It does certainly paint a different picture with different conclusions. However, who knows how long the tumor had been growing and effecting his behavior. With his background, it was a double whammy!

      • The point made by the book is still valid. The additional info on Whitman came from the inquest after the killings, and testimony of the counselor he saw once shortly before the incident. We studied extreme murder cases and serial killers in an abnormal psych class at college.

  4. Hi Debbie,
    A very thought provoking post to say the least. With the man who had a tumor which controlled his impulses I can’t find fault with him. He was a victim of his own body and no amount of consciousness could of helped him.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Justin, thank you for your comment. As Mikey points out in his comment above, sounds like Charles Whitman might have been headed towards violent, errant behavior even without the tumor. Who knows? Tumor or not, he still was dangerous and, had he lived he would have had to be incapacitated. This is Eagleman’s point. The issue becomes not one of fault, but one of how to address and modify the behavior even when the it has a biological cause.

  5. Hi Debbie,

    This is such a fascinating look at how biology impacts behavior. I think this is the case not just with murderers but with most of us. It takes knowledge to understand our biology and work with it diligently toward improvement. That’s why the differentiation between physical and mental disorders often seems arbitrary to me. They are so often interconnected and in ways we may never know.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Sandra, so true. There is no clear cut basis for behavior…even when not criminal. I think, this helps me to have more compassion for people, in general. It is all intricately intertwined. Either can be the cause or the effect or both.

  6. I always find these ethical and philosophical questions about crime interesting. It’s odd to try and defend crime by saying the person had a biological problem that made them see the world differently than what society finds acceptable, but anyone who commits a crime must have factors that contributed to them seeing the situation and the choices differently than the rest of society.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Good point,Good Greatsby. (I just wanted to say that!) It seems obvious and logical. This just further solidifies Eagleman’s position that the issue of blameworthiness applied by the legal system today is not even valid.

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    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Kathryn, thank you so much for your nice words! At first, I had to think “OK. Is this one of those spam comments?” because I don’t usually get this kind of encouraging words. I paid someone to do the original layout of the blog, but I plan to update it this summer as it is 3 years old. I do the writing and research. I have written a book manuscript, am currently editing it, and hope to find an agent and publisher soon! Know anyone? 🙂 So, your comments are much appreciated!

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