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The limited role of neuroimaging in determining criminal liability: An overview and case report

Forensic Science International
Publication Date
DOI: 10.1016/j.forsciint.2008.04.002
  • Neuroimaging
  • Impulsive Violence
  • Psychopathy
  • Aggression
  • Biology
  • Criminology
  • Medicine


Abstract Objective Studies indicate there is a substantial biological substrate for psychopathic behavior. Neuroimaging techniques have afforded biomedical sciences a means to investigate further how aberrant brain activity or structure may be correlated with psychopathy and violence. This paper will provide an overview of the literature, and then will explore the role of structural and functional MRI brain imaging in the defense of a young adult male charged with kidnapping and rape. Method Using Pubmed and the keywords “functional neuroimaging,” “structural neuroimaging,” “psychopathy,” “antisocial personality,” “sociopathy,” “aggression,” “impulsivity,” and “violence,” the authors conduct a review of structural and functional neuroimaging studies involving aggressive, violent, psychopathic or antisocial offenders. We then provide a case report of a defendant, charged with kidnapping and rape, who was found during a forensic evaluation to have abnormal neuroimaging findings. Results The defendant's counsel was able to present in his client's defense multiple indicators of brain dysfunction and psychiatric illness partially substantiated by brain imaging. Conclusions The extent to which neuroimaging findings can be used as exculpatory or mitigating evidence remains the subject of much debate. Neuroimaging is just one piece of evidence the forensic expert relies on in determining the extent of neuropathology and mental illness. As illustrated in the case report, imaging studies most often will serve a mitigating role, affording the courts an opportunity to tailor punishment, provide court-ordered treatment, and potentially decrease recidivism.

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