In 1978, Rodney Alcala of California approached Liane Leedom, who was 17 years old at the time. He struck up a conversation, showed her some of his photographs, and then asked to photograph her. Although he was later convicted of murdering four women and a girl, Rodney Alcala did not kill Liane Leedom.
In 1983, Brian Dugan of Illinois abducted and murdered a 10-year-old girl. The next year he raped and murdered a 27-year-old woman, and the following year he raped and murdered a 7-year-old girl.
Both of these men are psychopaths. They’re both facing the death penalty for their crimes. But last November, at Brian Dugan’s sentencing, defense attorneys argued that because the man had a personality disorder, because he was incapable of experiencing normal emotions like remorse, he should get life in prison, not death.
Kent Kiehl, Ph.D.
The star witness in the plea for leniency was a prominent psychopathy researcher, Kent Kiehl, Ph.D. of the University of New Mexico. Kiehl evaluated Dugan according to the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised—the murderer scored 37 out of 40.
Kiehl also scanned Dugan’s brain using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging). The technique measures blood flow within the brain, which is thought to reflect brain activity. It shows which area of a person’s brain “lights up” with different thoughts.
According to Miller-McCune Online Magazine,
The scans show that the psychopath’s brain does indeed look different from others. “This shouldn’t really surprise people,” Kiehl said. “When your behavior is very different, your brain is different.” He estimates that 15 to 20 percent of prisoners in minimum to medium security prisons qualify as psychopaths, while the figure might run as high as 30 percent for those in maximum security.
Kiehl thinks it’s absurd to execute convicted murderers who have malfunctioning brains. “It’s kind of like telling a patient who has dyslexia to go read Faulkner, or something really difficult,” he said. “They have no chance, but you’re going to punish them because they can’t read?”
Kiehl testified about Dugan’s fMRI scans in the sentencing hearing—the first time fMRI evidence was ever used in court. The psychologist was asked if Brian Dugan had a normal brain. He said no.
Psychopathy, the defense team said, was a mitigating factor, a reason why Dugan shouldn’t get the death penalty. But why wasn’t it an aggravating factor?
Yes, psychopaths do not feel normal emotions, and perhaps we should feel sorry for them because of it. But psychopaths know the rules of society. Even if they don’t feel any emotional inhibition about raping and killing, they know on an intellectual level that these behaviors are wrong and can get them arrested, tried and possibly sentenced to death.
Other experts espouse this point of view. Stephen J. Morse, a professor of law and neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania was also quoted in the Miller-McCune article:
All the law really requires, he says, is a general capacity to understand and follow rules. “The law doesn’t really ask a lot of us,” Morse said. “How hard is it to know that you shouldn’t kill people, you shouldn’t rape people, you shouldn’t burn buildings that aren’t yours, and you shouldn’t take what doesn’t belong to you?”
Neuroscientific expertise may also become a double-edged sword that could be used against defendants, he warns. “There are going to start to be prosecution experts who are going to come in and tell the jury why this doesn’t have the implications that the defense claims,” he said. “Rather than being mitigating, for example, evidence of brain abnormalities might be aggravating because they will indicate that the defendant is particularly dangerous.”
Capable of choices
Psychopaths do exercise choice. They are capable of controlling their behavior when they want to. Rodney Alcala killed four women and a child, but he did not kill Liane Leedom. Perhaps he killed the others because he thought he could get away with the crimes. But he could have chosen not to kill them either.
A diagnosis of psychopathy shouldn’t be used to get people off. It should be used to convict them and send them away.
For further discussion of these issues, read:
A mind of crime—how brain-scanning technology is redefining criminal culpability, in Miller-McCune Online Magazine.
Science in court: Head case, in Nature.com.
Thank you to the Lovefraud reader BloggerT7165 for sending a link to this story.