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Could Brain Injuries Contribute to Criminal Activity?

Could Brain Injuries Contribute to Criminal Activity?

Posted in Criminal Defense

If you have sustained a brain injury, does it increase the chances you will commit a crime? And if a damaged brain does lead to damaged and even criminal behavior, what does that mean for the law, the courts, sentencing, and determining whether someone is guilty or innocent?

These kinds of neurological questions are winding up in the courtroom. According to an article in Newsweek, a study by Duke bioethicist Nita Farahany and reported by Wired “found that the number of judicial opinions mentioning neuroscience or behavioral genetics more than doubled between 2005 and 2012.” How the courts regard the answers can directly affect whether a person is considered to be criminally responsible for a crime and what the punishment should be.

If you have had a brain injury and subsequently been arrested or charged with a crime in Illinois, you are faced with a criminal record that will negatively impact you for the rest of your life.  Due to the seriousness and complexity of Illinois criminal law, it is essential to get top-notch legal assistance with someone who understands the effects of brain injuries. The experienced Illinois criminal defense lawyers at Wolfe & Stec, Ltd. are skilled trial lawyers who believe each case is unique, with its own set of circumstances and requirements and will work with you to mount the most effective defense possible.  We offer a free consultation, so contact us for help today at 630-305-0222 if you have been accused of any criminal charges.

What Traumatic Brain Injury Can Do

Traumatic brain injury often occurs through accidents such as car crashes, gunshot wounds, falls, and sports or combat injuries.  According to William J. Winslade, PhD, JD Professor at the Institute for the Medical Humanities University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, these injuries account for two million brain injuries a year.

Winslade notes that while some people fully recover, others wind up with cognitive, emotional and behavioral disabilities. When injuries are severe, many people lack the ability to control their thoughts, emotions, impulses and conduct. They may exhibit uncontrolled anger or become uninhibited, promiscuous, anxious, paranoid or violent. This combination can contribute to the commission of criminal acts.

What Studies Show

1) Professor Farahany has been tracking criminal cases in which lawyers have introduced neuroscientific evidence since 2004, and she found about 2,000 examples.  She found that use of this evidence has been increasing, with 600 of those cases in 2011 alone; it was most often used for capital mitigation, followed by competency hearings. About 20 percent of trials in which such evidence was used resulted in “favorable outcomes” for criminal defendants, including reduction of charges or sentences.

2) A new study in PNAS that looked at 17 cases of people with brain damage who committed crimes found that the damaged areas were in networks of the brain used for value-based decision-making and the ability to imagine the perspective of other people.

3) According to a study by psychiatrist Dorothy Otnow Lewis of 29 inmates on death row in the 1980s, a history of traumatic brain injury is more common among prisoners than in the general population.  Lewis found that all of the prisoners had a history of traumatic brain injury, but this evidence of brain injury was not presented in their legal proceedings.

Legal Ramifications

Since, legally, people whose mental capacity is severely impaired may be found “not guilty by reason of insanity” for acts that would otherwise be a crime, the courts should consider whether these injuries can cause enough cognitive and behavioral changes to meet the test for insanity.  To determine criminal responsibility, it is relevant to evaluate psychiatric, neurological and neuropsychological factors that may have influenced the behavior of people accused of a crime.  If they have had a history of traumatic brain injury, it might not be sufficient evidence for a ruling of insanity, but it may help to explain criminal behavior and be a mitigating factor to be considered when determining severity of punishment.

Techniques for revealing brain injuries — such as CT scans, MRIs or PET scans and psychological testing for impulse control disorders – are improving. As this evidence is brought to court, attorneys, judges and juries must decide how much credibility and weight to give the evidence that damaged brains impair control of behavior and use this to assess criminal responsibility.

While it’s not true that everyone who suffers brain damage commits criminal acts, there are many anecdotal cases in medical literature showing that it causes behavioral changes, including impulsiveness, depression, aggression, inappropriate sexual behavior, lack of thought control and violence among people who prior to their injuries did not exhibit such behaviors. It is questionable how much this should be considered in criminal culpability.

Still, defense lawyers are increasingly introducing high-tech brain images and citing studies that link brain injury and violence to explain, excuse or mitigate criminal behavior. It is something that everyone with a brain injury who has been accused of a crime should be aware of.

Put Your Trust In Us — Contact Wolfe & Stec, Ltd. for a Free Consultation.

Whether or not you have a brain injury, if you have been charged with a criminal offense in Illinois, you need to hire the best criminal defense attorney that you can find. The experienced and seasoned Illinois criminal defense attorneys at Wolfe & Stec, Ltd. will examine the facts, the individuals involved, and the evidence available in every situation.  We work with our clients to come up with an effective defense strategy and determine whether to take a case to trial. Our goal is always to minimize the negative impact of the situation and to focus on protecting your freedoms, liberties, rights, and your ability to find employment.

We are aggressive litigators and will answer all your questions and make sure you fully understand the facts surrounding your case.  We represent clients in DuPage County, Naperville, Aurora, Wheaton, Downers Grove and Bolingbrook, and the greater Chicagoland area.

Delaying can only make your situation worse, so contact us and call 630-305-0222 today to schedule your free initial consultation.

Additional Reading:  Illinois Trooper Accused of Criminal Offense After Traffic Stop


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