A brain scan decides a woman is guilty of murder

By Mark O’Neill
Contributing Writer, [GAS]

I’m not sure whether to be fascinated about this or totally horrified.

An Indian court has convicted a woman of murdering her fiancé.    Prosecutors managed to get a conviction on the basis of a brain scan which allegedly showed areas of the brain “lighting up”. This apparently proved that she had “experiential knowledge” about the crime “that only the killer could possess”.

The process started with an Electroencephalogram (EEG). The resulting brain waves were then fed through a program called a “Brain Electrical Oscillations Signature test”, or BEOS.  This was developed by Champadi Raman Mukundan, an Indian neuroscientist.

In this particular case, Aditi Sharma voluntarily took the test (probably thinking she would breeze through it).  Investigators read aloud to her a version of events that they think transpired when the murder took place, reading in the first person (“I bought arsenic;” “I met Udit at McDonald’s”).   It is claimed that during this session, the area of the brain where memories are stored buzzed.    This has led forensic investigators to claim that Sharma has “experiential knowledge” of having committed the murder, rather than just having heard about it.    That immediately earned Sharma a life sentence in prison, despite her protestations that she is innocent of the charges.

I’m sure the appeal will be interesting to listen to (assuming she decides to appeal).

Law enforcement experts worldwide are split over the reliability of the technology.   Some are extremely interested and want to know more about it.    Others have dismissed the work as “shaky at best”.    Those who support the technology say it marks the beginning of the end for people who commit crimes and then try to lie their way out of it.   All a police officer has to do is hook the person up to an EEG and watch for the brain to light up.

Henry Greely, a bioethicist at Stanford Law School, had a warning though : “if brain scans are widely adopted, the legal issues alone are enormous, implicating at least the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.”

What do you think?   Is this a bit too draconian and risky for your liking or a step in the right direction for upholding the law?

India’s use of brain scans in courts dismays critics – International Herald Tribune


11 Responses to A brain scan decides a woman is guilty of murder

  1. This sounds a little LOT on the experimental side at the moment and I cannot see how it held up in court. If I were the judge I would have needed clear evidence ant tests to prove the procedure was completely fault proof and not on the experimental side in the slightest.

  2. I agree with the bioethicist. *ticks off on her fingers* First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Fourteenth… yeah, that sounds about right. There are so many laws here that basically amount to the right to keep your mouth shut that I don't see how this could possibly fly in the US. But it sure would be a fascinating legal battle.

  3. Two words: false positives.

    The human brain is a very fuzzy sort of engine. Was the "lighting up" due to recalling the same events – or just similar events? How could you distinguish between the two? My guess is the error rate for false positives is very high.

    This technology might be good for proving a high probability of innocence (if no "lighting up"), but not as proof of guilt. The two uses are very different.

    EEGs are a pretty crude measurement of brain activity, and this application is like a car mechanic doing a diagnosis just from the noise your car makes. Might work sometimes, but not what you want as the final proof.

    You want to run studies at least hundreds if not thousands of subjects, and you want to look for false positives. Even a 1% rate of false positives should be too high to serve as any sort of proof of guilt. Given the lack of peer review or independent studies this technique should never have been used in court.

    • I agree with Preston. What if someone described to you a crime in first person that was similar to a scene in a movie, e.g., "Saw" or "Hostel", which are pretty gruesome and explicit? Would that part of the brain "light up" as well since you have "experimental knowledge" from having watched the movie?

      Unfortunately, brain scans will join drug tests as a test with dubious accuracy that people accept as 100% accurate.

  4. Good night, this sounds like a Star Trek: Voyager episode. I enjoyed it as a fictional story, but had never expected it to be reality. I don't like it at all.

  5. I wonder what the outcome of this scan would be on someone like myself that has had a traumatic brain injury. Either way….it's just another step towards big brother being in full control of your thoughts. Wonder if Tin Foil will help? :)

  6. This shouldn't be used as court, even if it's reliable and true, because with it you're guilty until the test proves you're innocent. Any one who's a suspect is presumed guilty until this test clears them.

  7. With the amount of more reliable tests that are not allowed in court for a variety of reasons, I'm surprised this even got past the discussion stage.

    I agree with the first poster – proof of innocence? Maybe. Although it assumes you're guilty and it has something to look for. But proof of guilt? How do you differentiate between similar events, or the same events on a different day? She could have knowingly bought rat poison with arsenic in 2 years ago and be remembering that incident; met Udit at McDonalds the day before etc. Memories are too easily mixed up or inaccurtely remembered. You may know you met someone for coffee last week but you'd have to narrow it down to what day. If you met more than once could you acurrately pinpoint what happened on each occassion? Do YOU actually remember exactly what you would did on February 19th 2005? Yeah me neither.

    It's very, very interesting in theory. But I think like everything it needs a lot more testing before we go assuming it's infallible.

  8. It took about 15 years before finger printing was admitted as evidence. 9 years for DNA to be accepted as evidence. As much as we might not like (or even understand) a technology, we have to be open to the possibility that the technology will evolve. Neurological research is so advanced, the line between fiction and fact is blurred every day. The beauty of the US constitution is that it has always adapted to changing environment. It by far the only constitution in the world that has the history of checks and balances and recalibration. Ethical reasons always exist. Right from the scrambled eggs you had this morning to the news paper you just read. We just need to be open minded.

  9. It seems really odd that no neuroscientist has heard of mirror neurons: they are very hard to tell from the actual, first-person one, and they activate when someone is trying to walk in someone else's shoes. Those help to learn by copying, they are more active in women I think, and talking at the first person would certainly help. Last question: how can any scientist validate that without having someone else (related to the case but innocent beyond doubt) tested?