Called “the best kind of nonfiction” by Michael Connelly, this riveting new book combines true crime, brain science, and courtroom drama.
In 1991, the police were called to East 72nd St. in Manhattan, where a woman’s body had fallen from a twelfth-story window. The woman’s husband, Herbert Weinstein, soon confessed to having hit and strangled his wife after an argument, then dropping her body out of their apartment window to make it look like a suicide. The 65-year-old Weinstein, a quiet, unassuming retired advertising executive, had no criminal record, no history of violent behavior—not even a short temper. How, then, to explain this horrific act?
Journalist Kevin Davis uses the perplexing story of the Weinstein murder to present a riveting, deeply researched exploration of the intersection of neuroscience and criminal justice. Shortly after Weinstein was arrested, an MRI revealed a cyst the size of an orange on his brain’s frontal lobe, the part of the brain that governs judgment and impulse control. Weinstein’s lawyer seized on that discovery, arguing that the cyst had impaired Weinstein’s judgment and that he should not be held criminally responsible for the murder. It was the first case in the United States in which a judge allowed a scan showing a defendant’s brain activity to be admitted as evidence to support a claim of innocence.
The Weinstein case marked the dawn of a new era in America’s courtrooms, raising complex and often troubling questions about how we define responsibility and free will, how we view the purpose of punishment, and how strongly we are willing to bring scientific evidence to bear on moral questions. Davis brings to light not only the intricacies of the Weinstein case but also the broader history linking brain injuries and aberrant behavior, from the bizarre stories of Phineas Gage and Charles Whitman, perpetrator of the 1966 Texas Tower massacre, to the role that brain damage may play in violence carried out by football players and troubled veterans of America’s twenty-first century wars. The Weinstein case opened the door for a novel defense that continues to transform the legal system: Criminal lawyers are increasingly turning to neuroscience and introducing the effects of brain injuries—whether caused by trauma or by tumors, cancer, or drug or alcohol abuse—and arguing that such damage should be considered in determining guilt or innocence, the death penalty or years behind bars. As he takes stock of the past, present and future of neuroscience in the courts, Davis offers a powerful account of its potential and its hazards.
Thought-provoking and brilliantly crafted, The Brain Defense marries a murder mystery complete with colorful characters and courtroom drama with a sophisticated discussion of how our legal system has changed—and must continue to change—as we broaden our understanding of the human mind.
Published: February 28, 2017
“My brain made me do it.” Sounds like a ridiculous defense but, with this book, Kevin Davis shows us the science making that phrase a real possibility.
Every thought, decision, and action springs from complex processes in our brains that are influenced by both nature and nurture.
While I’m tempted to rehash some of the excellent material within, because it’s a really fun topic to discuss, I’ll instead stick to my thoughts on the book in general. First, the material is impeccably researched. The author builds from a solid base of one particular case, with a man who, after murdering his wife, was found to have an enormous cyst on his brain. From there, we explore what it means to be sane, and is the question of sanity different from being criminally responsible?
The idea that the law might excuse a person for committing a crime because something was wrong with his brain has its roots in ancient Greece.
In reading this book, it’s difficult not to question the issue of free will. How much of our behavior is governed by the inner workings of our brains? We start to wonder where the line sits between choice and biologically-governed behavior.
“Is your brain who you are?”
Kevin Davis’s writing is thoroughly engaging. This isn’t a dry, textbook kind of read. Yet, it’s also not light pop science. The content is compelling and thought-provoking. Davis doesn’t claim to have all the answers, and he doesn’t lead us in any specific direction. He gives us room to ponder the questions and reach our own conclusions about a topic that is likely to become more controversial over the years.
*I was provided with an advance copy by the publisher, via Amazon Vine, in exchange for my honest review.*
Thanks for reading. 🙂