Thursday, November 17, 2011

The sins of the father?

What does it mean to have criminal intent?

What does it mean to be a psychopath?

Dr. Kent Kiehl of the University of New Mexico has a theory.

Dr. Kiehl is a neuroscientist specializing in the cutting edge field of behavioral neuroscience. Dr. Kiehl believes that psychopathic behavior is "hard-wired." In other words, those who commit criminal acts yet show no emotion or empathy aren't evil, they're suffering from a disorder of the brain.

Dr. Kiehl's lab has customized a van with a mobile brain scanner that allows him to drive it into prisons to conduct research. His research seems to indicate that psychopaths have low density levels and low activity levels in the para-limbic systems in their brains.
"Those systems, we think, didn't develop normally in Brian," says Dr Kiehl. Psychopathy seems to involve a lack of development in these regions - which may be genetically determined.
The para-limbic system is located in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain and is regarded as the brain's behavior circuit. Patients who have suffered injuries to this part of  the brain tend to exhibit behavioral changes and impulse control issues.

And that's where Dr. Kiehl's theory becomes very interesting.

Now I have a brother-in-law who suffered a severe head injury in an automobile accident 15 years ago or so. He was thrown out of his truck and hit his head on the road. He has had a multitude of problems as a result. The part of the brain that tells you when you're cold or hot doesn't always work. Neither does the part that tells you when you're no longer thirsty. He's not a psychopath and he hasn't been prone to violence over the years - but he is a different person than he was prior to the accident.

Dr. Kiehl believes that these deficiencies in the para-limbic system are genetic. He believes that people suffering from this disorder have impulse control issues and a lack of emotional ability. Their criminal acts aren't the result of criminal intent, but, instead, are the end result of their brain disorder.

His belief is that psychopaths aren't criminals because they lack the mens rea to commit criminal acts.

But what is to be done?

In Dr. Kiehl's world, doctors can intervene when young people begin to show early signs of psychopathic behavior. Early detection and treatment may be able to prevent that person from becoming a violent criminal.

But how should the criminal (in)justice system treat that person? Does he suffer from a mental defect? Does that defect prevent him from distinguishing between right and wrong? Does he understand the consequences of his behavior? These are all questions that must be answered.

And they are questions for which our legal system is ill-equipped to handle.

On the other hand, Dr. Kiehl may be treading down a dangerous path. Are we to believe that psychopathic behavior is inherited? Will screening tests be developed to determine who may or may not have the defect? Does having the disorder mean that someone will become a psychopath? Are we headed down the road to a genetic theory of crime?

There have been scientists in the past who theorized that mental defects caused people to become violent criminals. But just because a number of people labeled as psychopaths have a similar flaw in their brains, doesn't mean that the flaw caused the behavior.

Where's the control group? Do we know how rare, or how prevalent, this disorder is? What percentage of the population who have never committed a violent crime have this disorder? What percentage of violent psychopaths don't suffer from it?

Are we just automatons destined to commit acts outside our control due to the chemistry and physical make-ups of our brains, or do we have the ability to make decisions on how to behave? If it's the former, how do we handle those who exhibit psychopathic behavior? More importantly, how would society react?

See also:

"Talking like a psychopath," The Trial Warrior Blog (Oct. 27, 2011)


A Voice of Sanity said...

The entire legal system rests on an unproven belief - that we actually have choices which we can make freely. There is still no proof that this is not a mere illusion.

It seems grotesque to kill our fellow citizens because of an illusion - but perhaps we have no choice in this either!

To your direct point, it might be as well to dispense with notions of "guilty but insane" and "not guilty due to insanity". Perhaps we should proceed with the trial irrespective of the sanity of the defendant, but using different rules and protections depending on the defendant's competency.

And then, after the trial, if convicted he would be held in an appropriate facility relative to the danger he poses to himself or to others.

Paul B. Kennedy said...

The main problem with your model is that a legally insane person cannot form the necessary mens rea (criminal intent) to commit a criminal act.

Punishing a person who did not intend to commit a crime is senseless as any sanction imposed would have no impact on the individual.

A Voice of Sanity said...

If the person is a danger to others, 'others' have a right to protection.

If they are a danger to themselves, they themselves deserve protection as well.

In either case protection is a fair requirement by society.

These matters are best determined by the courts - who else can do it?

Whatever the outcome, matters should proceed while witnesses are alive and memories are fresh. So even someone like Jared Loughner (who shot Gabrielle Giffords) should have his case determined in a prompt proceeding. If he should recover his sanity, there is no reason not to have a judge reconsider its disposition based on new facts. I am not suggesting punishment per se, merely that society has a right to deal with him as he is. I am not impressed with the current model.

ISTR that Winifred Ransom, the first known US fetus-napper, was recommended for release shortly after being committed as insane.

Some later, similar crimes were treated as death penalty cases. That hardly demonstrates the consistency expected of the law.

Paul B. Kennedy said...

The criminal (in)justice system is not capable of handling mental health issues - even though in some counties (such as Harris County), the jail is the largest mental health facility.

If a person is a danger to others, that person should be removed -- but not through the criminal courts.