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Archive for March, 2010

Do our brains ‘make us’ murder?

Wednesday, March 31, 2010
posted by Rita Handrich

After more than fifteen years of trial consulting we think sometimes we’ve seen it all. But there is always something new waiting in the wings to surprise us. Which is actually very cool.  Issues around law and neuroscience (“my brain made me do it”) are being raised almost weekly (or so it seems). We’ve blogged about it a number of times and remain fascinated, amused, and sometimes alarmed by the courtroom decisions based on neurolaw. This week it’s all about murder.

In Canada, a man who killed a nun while having an epileptic seizure was released “under the strictest of conditions”. Martin Rondeau is thought to be most dangerous when he is asleep. He beat an elderly nun named Estelle Lauzon to death in a halfway house in 2007. Rondeau will now live with his mother and stepfather and is expected to take his medication, follow a curfew, sleep alone, and be required to both enter and leave the home with a personalized alarm code.

The Last Psychiatrist blog tells the engrossing story of a man who was failing financially and so did “the obvious thing: He strangled his wife while she was on top of him during sex; then strangled his 2 year old daughter who was sleeping on the floor beside their bed; stuffed their bodies in suitcases; then put his other two sleeping kids into their car seats and drove them to a bridge, tied rocks to their feet, and threw them in the river.  Then he went to Cancun.”

The blog post goes on to tell us that Christian Longo is a classic narcissist and then breaks down his story into identifiable lies and ploys. The culmination of the story is that Mr. Longo wants to change the laws to allow the executed to donate their organs—to end his own life with a selfless act. It’s a terrific post (on a generally interesting blog) that tells us to think critically and know how to recognize baloney when we see/hear it.

Questions of responsibility in the face of illness (whether it is epilepsy or character disorder) are becoming increasingly important for us to consider.

  • Where does personal responsibility end?
  • What about all the people with epilepsy who never kill anyone during a seizure?
  • What about all the narcissists who leave paths of interpersonal destruction in their wake but never kill their spouse and children (or friends or family or even strangers for that matter)?

Is there an appropriate end for personal responsibility?  In an age of mandatory sentencing guidelines, can there be a ‘policy’ that justly deals with these peculiar cases?

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You might want to file this one under “go figure”. It’s an example of how odd research findings that seem related (but probably aren’t) get into our national consciousness. Perhaps our national altered consciousness.

In research coming out in the May 2010 issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry researchers follow nearly 4,000 young adults born between 1981 and 1984. What they find is striking. The longer study participants had used marijuana, the higher the risk of psychosis-related disorders. According to the researchers, those who are more vulnerable to psychosis were more likely to smoke marijuana and that, in turn, could increase their risk for developing mental illness.

In an odd twist, just last month, the same journal published an article on fish oil and psychotic symptoms. The article is discussed briefly at the Psychiatric Times website where they report that taking fish oil “reduced the risk of progression to psychotic disorder in young people with subthreshold psychotic symptoms”. In other words, if you seem vulnerable to psychosis and you take fish oil, you don’t go on to develop full-blown psychosis. “Mom was right”, they say, “fish is good for you”.

Does this mean if you take fish oil supplements you can smoke all the weed you want without becoming psychotic? Probably not. But we see this sort of thinking in mock jurors routinely. They hear the story and take seemingly unrelated facts and combine them in ways that are unexpected and, at times, quite frankly frightening. Sometimes it’s an odd combination of life experience and tangentially related case facts. Sometimes it actually is the result of case facts that jurors tangle together.

It’s one of the benefits of pre-trial research. You get to hear how those unrelated facts are tied together and you can (try to) disconnect them by modifying your case narrative. You are the one telling the story. Don’t let odd associations change the story jurors are hearing.

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Here’s a simple and powerful persuasion strategy. Although somewhat paradoxical, giving people the freedom to resist your message appears to undermine their wish to do so. You can think of it as the anti-Borg message. Rather than “resistance is futile”, your message is “you may wish to resist”. Rather than crushing them, you invite them in to hear your message with the understanding they may choose to disagree.

Why would we suggest such a thing? We’ve known for decades that giving people the ‘freedom to resist’ often results in them becoming putty in your hands (Brohm, 1966). More recently, Linn & Knowles (2002) were able to substantively increase the appeal of a persuasive message by simply commenting that the recipient of the message would likely want to disagree with it!

Here’s how this might look—

Expert witness: “This might seem like it doesn’t make sense and people might want to disagree with it up front. Here’s how it works…”

Opening statement: “You may find you want to disagree with our side. We ask that you listen to the whole story and then choose which side you agree with—we think our side is harder to explain but ultimately correct.”

Closing statement: “You may disagree with what my client chose to do. His belief was that it was the only valid choice at that point in time.”

Your task is simply to strategically weave the tactic in to your case narrative (very selectively) and thereby reduce juror resistance to your story. It is amazingly simple. We like that.

Brohm, J. (1966). A theory of psychological reactance. New York: Academic Press.

Linn, J. and Knowles, E. (2002, May). Acknowledging target resistance in persuasive messages. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Midwestern Psychological Association, Chicago, Illinois.

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New research on men: What do we know now?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010
posted by Douglas Keene

Some new research has come out on men that may or may not be news to you. David DiSalvo at BrainSpin put it this way: “Only occasionally do studies come out that improve the image of men as more than stubborn, violent and incorrigible beasts with malfunctioning moral compasses. The one I’m about to talk about isn’t one of them.”

Here’s a rundown on the latest research findings on men:

  • Men feel less guilt than women. While women may legitimately be described as feeling “too much” guilt, mean are guilty of feeling “too little”. Researchers think that the difference is likely due to socialization and educational practices. We would say it is likely sometimes reinforced by our legal system. Take, for example, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals telling a man convicted of possession of child pornography that he had no obligation to inform his probation officer of involvement in a romantic relationship and no obligation to inform any woman with whom he might become involved of his child pornography conviction.
  • Men prefer Beyonce’s hourglass figure to the more spare frame of say, Kate Moss. These scientists used eye-tracking devices as the men looked at photographs of women to quantify male preference for curves.
  • Men are survivors. If you are on a sinking ship (think Titanic) or in a plane crash and want to survive—it’s good to be a man. On a study of plane emergency evacuations, gender was the most predictive factor in survival (followed closely by proximity to exit). I think that may mean men are more likely to shove the women and children out of the way…

We’re not sure what these findings mean for litigation. But we cover research on women (here and here) and brains so it kind of makes sense to cover men too.

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You may be very surprised by the answer! We have an article in the current issue of The Jury Expert on the surprisingly intense hatred and fear Americans have toward atheists. The power of this bias is stronger than America’s bias against African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, homosexuals, and shockingly (in our post 9-11 reality) Muslims. Yes. We are more afraid of/threatened by Atheists than by Muslims.   Sometimes you don’t know whether to be somehow relieved or heartsick.  Alas…

We started writing this piece after reading a 2006 article finding Atheists to be the most hated minority in this country. That article only recently came to public attention but it had generated a bit of heat on the internet. It was nothing, however, to the Kanazawa pre-print from Social Psychology Quarterly that came out as we finished up our first draft. Science Daily picked it up and then a plethora of bloggers took up the trail. Razib Khan and Robin Hanson generated the most comments from readers. Even the main-stream media (in the form of Time Magazine) covered the story.

Our focus (and interest) isn’t really on whether liberal atheists are smarter than conservative believers. We are more interested in the raging emotional response Americans exhibit toward atheists and how that may affect litigation advocacy. We cover the limited research on characteristics of atheists and review the long-standing and firmly entrenched biases against atheists in this country. And we make recommendations for putting your best foot forward in the courtroom (if you have an atheist client) and in voir dire (do you want or not want an atheist on the jury). This is a universally held and powerful bias you cannot afford to ignore. Read our article here.

*The illustration on this post is from a British bus ad campaign paid for by a British atheist group. The transit company required the insertion of the word ‘probably’ before allowing the ad.

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