In 1991 Manhattan man Herbert Weinstein killed his wife. Weinstein confessed to the murder – the couple were having a heated argument and he dropped his wife Barbara from their apartment window. A shocking crime that left Weinstein’s family stunned. Weinstein had no history of violent behaviour.
Enter medicine and brain science. An MRI revealed that Weinstein had a tumour on the frontal lobe of his brain, the area that governs decision-making and impulse control. Could this be the reason Weinstein acted out in murderous rage? His defence used this argument, marking the entry into America’s courtrooms of neuroscience to explain criminal behaviour.
Author Kevin Davis uses the Weinstein case as the anchor of his book The Brain Defense: Murder in Manhattan and the Dawn of Neuroscience in America’s Courtrooms. The book also explores the history of brain science in criminal trials and the scientific links between brain injuries and anti-social and criminal behaviour.
You’ll be intrigued to find out more (if you don’t already know) about the University of Texas mass shooter Charles Whitman and whether the tumour detected in his brain post-mortem could have contributed to his killing rampage of 13 people (31 others were injured). He was shot dead by the police and that’s the only thing that stopped him killing more people. The correlation between Whitman’s dreadful crime, his mental health and the pecan-sized brain tumour found is still subject to debate.
The Brain Defense posed a lot of questions and issues. Can science and medical conditions really be a rock-solid explanation for crimes, especially murder. There’s some really stark evidence about how early-life stress and violence affects the developing brain of children. I found this so interesting and disturbing because it seems that children who have stressful or abusive homes and upbringings are really at such dire risk of stunted health and development.
Davis speaks to experts in the field of neuroscience and psychiatry, including Dr Martin H. Teicher, a Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard.
“Society reaps what it sows in nurturing it’s children,” says Teicher.
Davis writes: While abused children may know right from wrong, their brains are so irritable and the connections between hemispheres so tangled that they lack the ability to use logic and reason to control their aggressive impulses…”