ConText: Neurolaw

What? By invoking the somewhat inexact science of neurolaw, lawyers are increasingly finding a new perpetrator of crimes - it…

What?By invoking the somewhat inexact science of neurolaw, lawyers are increasingly finding a new perpetrator of crimes - it was their brains wot done it.

Sounds like a clever idea.

Lawyers are getting very interested in the growing science of neurolaw, because it could help them defend their clients in criminal cases. Basically, they can blame the client's brain for criminal actions.

Wot, my brain made me do it, yer honour?


In the early 1990s, neurolaw was central to the case of a chap in New York who was charged with murdering his wife. Herbert Weinstein, a 65-year-old ad executive, strangled his wife Barbara and then threw her out of their 12th-storey window to make it look like suicide. His lawyer said, no no no, Mr Weinstein loved his dear wife and wouldn't harm a hair on her head - but a brain scan showed he had a cyst on his arachnoid membrane which may have temporarily turned him into a cold-blooded wife-killer.

Did he get off, then?

The judge ruled that the defence could show the jury the brain scan, but could not tell the jury that this type of cyst causes violent behaviour. Weinstein pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of manslaughter. Defence lawyers are very excited by neurolaw, seeing it as a sure-fire way of pleading diminished responsibility. Prosecution lawyers, however, reckon it's all in the mind, and that neurolaw is simply allowing defendents to duck responsibility for their actions.

If their brains made them do it, then off with their heads, I say!

That's the conundrum: where do you draw the line between the person and the brain? Some argue that you can't treat the brain as a separate entity from the person - everything we do, from brushing our teeth to working out complex legal strategies, stems from the brain.

Indeed, a basic tenet of neuroscience is that "you are your brain", so, by that logic, neurolawyers who try to pin the crime on their clients' brains are pinning it on their clients.

Lot of neurotic lawyers knocking around these days.

Actually, neurolaw might come in handy when all these solicitors have to answer awkward questions in court about their business affairs.

Try in court:

This brain you saw running from the scene, Mr Murphy - can you describe it?

Try at home:

Good thing I didn't marry you for your brain?

Kevin Courtney

Kevin Courtney

Kevin Courtney is an Irish Times journalist