Defense lawyers are increasingly calling upon the services of neuroscientists to give evidence excusing, or mitigating the guilt of, their clients. A recent case illustrates some of the risks of doing so, as well (perhaps) of the potential benefits to lawyers and their clients.
The case is a tragically common one: every year there are dozens of cases of severe harms to infants who are left in cars. In many of these cases, the parent has simply forgotten the baby is in the car. For instance, a US man forgot to drop his infant daughter at child care and left her in the car all day while he worked: she died of heat prostration. In this particular case, a mother forgot she had taken her five month old daughter with her to a take away restaurant, and therefore forgot to remove her from the car. She was charged with the manslaughter of the child.
The defense called on the services of David Diamond, a US neuroscientist. Diamond testified that the mother may have been suffering from ‘forgotten baby syndrome’. The defendant would usually leave her daughter sleeping in her cot when she went to the restaurant. According to Diamond, when people perform habitual actions, they operate on auto-pilot. When in fact things are different, “‘the brain actually creates an alternative reality” that matches how things usually are when the person engages in a habitual action. Someone suffers from forgotten baby syndrome when they forget because they are guided by that alternative reality.
Now it is easy to mock these claims.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.