By Andreas Kuersten
A group of men exit a city hotel and begin making their way to a waiting car. As they approach the vehicle, another man opens fire on the group from 10 feet away, intending to kill one of them. Four men are wounded before the attacker is subdued by bystanders.
Imagine you’re a juror in the shooter’s trial for attempted murder.
At trial, the shooter’s legal team pursues the insanity defense. The defense argues that, at the time of the offense, the accused—due to mental disease or defect—lacked substantial capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of his actions or to conform to the requirements of the law. In support of this contention, the defense presents you and your fellow jurors with an image of the accused’s brain from a computerized axial tomography (CAT) scan. Accompanying this picture is the testimony of a defense expert, a neuroradiologist, saying that the shooter’s brain has relatively enlarged sulci and ventricles, signifying shrinkage and decay. A second defense expert, a psychiatrist, testifies that these characteristics are associated with schizophrenia.
To counter the defense’s presentation, the prosecution calls up another neuroradiologist, who says that the accused’s brain looks perfectly normal and many mentally healthy individuals exhibit the same brain structure.
This case was real. It was that of John Hinckley, Jr., the attempted assassin of then-President Ronald Reagan in 1981. Hinckley tried to kill the president because he thought it would impress the actress Jodie Foster, whom he had become obsessed with after seeing the movie Taxi Driver.
As a juror tasked with determining a person’s criminal culpability, what has the aforementioned evidence told you about Hinckley’s sanity at the moment he opened fire in front of the hotel?
Picture: Abu-Amero KK, Al-Dhalaan H, Bohlega S, Hellani A, Taylor RW. [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons