Herbert Weinstein was a charmer whose two adult children called him "Mr. Zen" because of his easygoing ways. They and everyone else who knew him were flabbergasted when, in 1991, during an argument, the 65-year-old retired advertising salesman strangled his second wife then threw her body out the window of their 12th-story Manhattan apartment in an attempt to make her death appear a suicide.
Weinstein's legal defense made history when his lawyer claimed that a benign brain cyst had caused him to go temporarily insane and commit the murder. As Kevin Davis explains in The Brain Defense: Murder in Manhattan and the Dawn of Neuroscience in America's Courtrooms, this was the first U.S. case in which a judge ruled that PET scan (positron-emission tomography) images could be shown to a jury determining a verdict.
The case is compelling, and Davis eloquently chronicles the many personal, medical, and legal details involved. A jury found Weinstein guilty; he served 14 years in prison before being released on parole in 2006 and dying in 2009.
The Brain Defense examines a variety of additional legal cases in which neuroscience has played a role, including those committed by veterans suffering from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and TBI (traumatic brain injury), and athletes suffering from concussions and TBI. One mystifying crime involved a New Jersey man who in 2012 hit his head and fell into a brief coma for six hours, then awakened feeling unsteady, tired, and paranoid. Five days later in the middle of the night he inexplicably beat his wife, his 24-year-old daughter and himself with a 5-pound metal dumbbell, sending all three to intensive care. In this case, the defendant was found not guilty by reason of insanity, given psychiatric treatment and welcomed home by his family.
Davis interviews a variety of experts who work at the increasingly common intersection of neuroscience and law, including a Florida defense attorney who asks every one of his clients to undergo a brain scan. Davis notes that while brain science can sometimes be misused, it can be vital in deciding how to handle juvenile defenders, whose brains aren't fully formed, and in redefining "society's concepts of guilt and punishment." While neuroscience can't currently determine a person's thoughts or intent when a crime is committed, it can be extraordinarily useful in reducing incarceration rates and improving rehabilitation.
As one federal judge says, "The worst thing that can happen with neuroscience is that it gets into the courtroom before it's ready. There is a communication barrier between lawyers and scientists. We need to learn to speak the same language."