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John McCluskey’s Brain

Tuesday, December 17, 2013 - 05:03 PM

In our recent "Blame" episode, we explored the tricky ethical questions that arise when criminal defendants put their own neurobiology in front of a jury. The thick line between innocent and guilty quickly becomes very, very faint: is a murderer with an injured frontal cortex less guilty than a murderer with a healthy frontal cortex? This all comes rushing back in the case of John McCluskey, which Greg Miller describes in his new Wired article, "Did Brain Scans Just Save a Convicted Murderer From the Death Penalty?" 

McCluskey was an escaped convict who was found guilty of two counts of murder in October. When it came time to sentence him, the jury had to choose between life in prison and the death penalty. They were torn. McCluskey's crimes were unquestionably reprehensible, but his lawyers argued that his brain was riddled with abnormalities that interfered with his impulse control. To punish him for his faulty biology would be unfair.

When you read the details of McCluskey's crime, it feels like you’re catching a glimpse of evil incarnate. This is a man who carjacked a retired couple in New Mexico, drove them to a remote area, shot them, and burned their bodies, all because he wanted to get a good night's sleep in their pickup truck. The easiest explanation is that McCluskey is just a moral vacuum, a man who lives for violence. A man who needs to be punished.

But when you see the scans of his brain, and when you read the mechanical descriptions of how that brain apparently misreads the world around it, the word "man" starts to feel like too simple a description of a complicated process. John McCluskey isn’t only a murderer. He’s an endless series of decisions that are being made by a malfunctioning brain: an amygdala that sends faulty "danger" signals, a cerebellum damaged by stroke, a malformed frontal lobe that doesn't allow him to ignore impulses. It may even be that the world as he sees it is not the world as we see it.  

It's not that John McCluskey is a good person – it’s that he is, to a degree, a victim of his own brain. At least, that's basically the argument the defense made, and it may be the reason the jury ultimately decided not to give McCluskey the death penalty.

After reading about this case, my fellow producer Lynn Levy made a call to Dr. David Eagleman, the neuroscientist whose ideas about blame first sparked our interest in the topic. 

Lynn writes:

To Dr. Eagleman, it was no surprise that John McCluskey’s brain showed evidence of abnormalities. “We already know that mental function is linked to brain function,” he said—that what you think, feel and do is based in something physical (and, as technologies improve, increasingly visible) inside your skull. “The question is: what result could we possibly have found about McCluskey's brain that would be surprising? There's going to be something out of the norm because his behavior is so out of the norm.”

But cases like this one raise another question for Dr. Eagleman, one he's been mulling for years. “To my mind,” he said, “it's not clear whether the evidence of these brain abnormalities should be considered mitigating or exacerbating.” 

In other words, let's say you're in charge of sentencing a criminal.  Looking at the evidence, you're convinced that this man is unable to control his impulses—that's just the way he's wired.  Unfortunately, those impulses lead him to do violent, unspeakable things.  And since we don't have the tools (so far) to fix his faulty wiring, he's likely to act the same way next time an impulse strikes.  

Does that mean he should get a lighter sentence because his wiring isn't his fault?  Or does it mean he should get a harsher one, to prevent the future crimes he seems bound to commit?


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Comments [13]

Cat Kennie from Ontario, Canada

If he has a brain defect that causes him to act out on violent impulses, he should be given a life sentence in a place where those deemed criminally insane are houses. There he can be given the drugs he may need to keep him committing violent acts while housed there.

Dec. 30 2013 08:59 PM

So, being a topic I've thought a lot about for a long time, I couldn't help but get inspired to write a response to this issue regarding brain disorders and committing crimes, and I specifically respond to the first two segments of the Blame episode itself. (I should probably mention that my response is rather lengthy.)

Dec. 24 2013 06:25 PM
Nathaniel Page from Isla Vista CA

My brain wonders which brains get to decide what constitutes a normal brain.

Dec. 23 2013 05:03 PM
Karen Archibald from Kaneohe, HI/Chicago,IL

Just listened to "Blame" for the second time. (The first was the week it aired.) Thank you for your work. Like a number of RadioLab shows, it actually puts me in what feels like an altered state - contemplating deep questions about what it means to me human.

Dec. 19 2013 07:20 PM
Noah Smith

I think the much broader question here is, are we a direct result of our biology, or do we have some real choice in the matter. If a man is not convicted for "faulty wiring" could there be other predispositions in the brain that could lead us to question why crimes are committed. And beyond that, if we do learn how to mend these thing, is it ethical to "rewire" a person and possibly destroy who that person once was?

Dec. 19 2013 12:13 AM

Should blame even matter? How can we take nature to be more important than nurture? Don't we all have predispositions due to our genetics that come to fruition depending on the environment we exist in?

There is no free will. But there are actions and consequences. Should we worry about blame or about how to prevent the actions by the same person in the future and/or other people?

We all run on incentive based on a particular point of view. Good and evil are just perspectives, not realities.

If we accept the truth, we can do our best to shape the future.

Dec. 18 2013 05:31 PM
Alden Rogers from Denver CO.

Some actions an individual may take simply injure to much for society to bear. Be it strictly a choice the person does with no coercion, or otherwise by means of some brain scar compelling them to do such, it matters not. If it is choice alone, such person must be punished for the crime as a means of justice/retribution, to teach them and possibly prevent such further choice, and to set an example for others who may want to choose such action without seeing the consequences. If it is a compelled action by a person and the action is indeed harmful to others, unless that compulsion is eliminated, they must be removed from situations where they can repeat such compelled action as they would very likely repeat such action, as it would then be out of their own control. Thus, they must both be punished for such crime as the justice/retribution for the completed crime must still be completed. Otherwise, rehabilitation/treatment would obviously need to be different for each case, to account for the root cause of the action committed.

Dec. 18 2013 05:29 PM
Tait from Billings, MT

There is nothing clear about this. The neuroscientist who was on this episode (remember the lively debate between him, Jad, and Robert?) pressed against the crucial question: How much is the brain formed by stimuli, and how much choice does the brain have in response? Could it be that the "scars" in his brain were caused by a series of choices, rather than unrelated factors which contributed to his choices? And, for a materialist, what is a choice??

Dec. 18 2013 02:07 PM
Mattias from Tallinn, Estonia

The relatively clear implication is that if society has been unable to "contain" a faulty brain and help it, it shouldn't destroy the brain for things it *may* not have been able to prevent. Whether or not the debate has a convincing answer we may not know, but death is final. If we end up being more lenient towards people like McCluskey in the end, the killing of him would be on the hands of the society that let him be killed.

Dec. 18 2013 12:12 PM

I am sure that most horrendous crimes are committed by persons with faulty brain activity on some level. So should these abmormal brain types be allowed to roam free in society to cause more pain and suffering? I think not.

Dec. 18 2013 11:51 AM
Ken from Forest Hill, MD

I think perhaps McCluskey himself should decide whether to be imprisoned for the rest of his life or die at the hands of the state. His mental affliction either caused or made it easier in some capacity to murder two innocent people, that same process should decide whether or not to end his own life. Both options are just as severe. He might up to the moment of execution suddenly change his mind and want life in prison or he might be in prison for a week and suddenly ask for death, however none of his requests after his decision should be permitted.

Dec. 18 2013 10:43 AM

The question as posed -
'Does that mean he should get a lighter sentence because his wiring isn't his fault? Or does it mean he should get a harsher one, to prevent the future crimes he seems bound to commit?'
- entails the whole issue of death sentence vs life sentence: why/when is actually a life sentence given and why/when a death sentence. One answer is simply: depends on what state yo're in [as in 'state of the U.S., if we're in the U.S.].
The actual difference lies in prevention vs punishment.
Prevention is something that's to be achieved in any case. Supposed that we for now neglect the possibility of escape, that's the dominating feature. A death sentence is therefore mainly punishment, long before it's a prevention measure. Naturally a life sentence is also punishment, both in understanding and effect, but if it's about prevention alone, prevention can be understood as such alone.
If we assess a person not responsible due to his brain functions preventing him/her from controlling violent impulses, then prevention is what is necessary, but punishment by death sentence would be absurd, in the least nothing but revenge.
If that's all there is.
This might be different [that is, punishment, in whatever form, not being absurd, i.e. revenge not being absurd] if that person is able to fully understand the implications [as in after the fact], and families and loved ones of the victim could therefore expect the subject to make sense of the punishment - otherwise it wouldn't make sense for relatives and friends of the victim either.
Left is then only the question whether a justice system wants to prevent, to punish or both.

Dec. 18 2013 08:53 AM

No one completely understands the brain. Until that happens, which might likely be never, the act is the only thing that should be judged. Eye for an eye, death for a death. Further, saying "To punish him for his faulty biology would be unfair" is ridiculous. Anyone who commits this type of murder is damaged somehow... whether a current-technology MRI shows it or not.

Dec. 18 2013 12:11 AM

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