The role that a diagnosis of psychopathy should play in criminal sentencing is an admittedly thorny issue. The legal standard for an insanity plea is that the perpetrator must not be able to distinguish between right and wrong. Sociopaths actually know the difference between right and wrong most of the time, they just don't care (enough to conform their behavior to societal standards). The debate is whether this faulty wiring makes them more culpable, less culpable, or equally culpable to a similarly offending non-sociopath. A prominent researcher who specializes in scanning the brains of sociopaths in prisons, Kent Kiehl, suggests in an interview with NPR that we should cut them some slack:
Brian Dugan . . . is serving two life sentences for rape and murder in Chicago. Last July, Dugan pleaded guilty to raping and murdering 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico in 1983, and he was put on trial to determine whether he should be executed. Kiehl was hired by the defense to do a psychiatric evaluation.With this and the U.S. Supreme Court case allowing governments to indefinitely detain pedophiles, the halcyon days of believing in rehabilitation for criminals seem to be over. If there was one piece of advice I could give this upcoming generation of sociopaths, it would be to master the ability to authentically mimic the empath's exaggerated remorse and self-hate, a performance that is quickly becoming necessary to keep the lynch mobs at bay.
In a videotaped interview with Kiehl, Dugan describes how he only meant to rob the Nicaricos' home. But then he saw the little girl inside.
"She came to the door and ... I clicked," Dugan says in a flat, emotionless voice. "I turned into Mr. Hyde from Dr. Jekyll."
"And I have empathy, too — but it's like it just stops," he says. "I mean, I start to feel, but something just blocks it. I don't know what it is."
Kiehl says he's heard all this before: All psychopaths claim they feel terrible about their crimes for the benefit of the parole board.
"But then you ask them, 'What do you mean, you feel really bad?' And Brian will look at you and go, 'What do you mean, what does it mean?' They look at you like, 'Can you give me some help? A hint? Can I call a friend?' They have no way of really getting at that at all," Kiehl says.
Kiehl says the reason people like Dugan cannot access their emotions is that their physical brains are different. And he believes he has the brain scans to prove it.
Psychopaths' brains behave differently from that of a nonpsychopathic person. When a normal person sees a morally objectionable photo, his limbic system lights up. This is what Kiehl calls the "emotional circuit," involving the orbital cortex above the eyes and the amygdala deep in the brain. But Kiehl says when psychopaths like Dugan see the KKK picture, their emotional circuit does not engage in the same way.
Kiehl says the emotional circuit may be what stops a person from breaking into that house or killing that girl. But in psychopaths like Dugan, the brakes don't work. Kiehl says psychopaths are a little like people with very low IQs who are not fully responsible for their actions. The courts treat people with low IQs differently. For example, they can't get the death penalty.
"What if I told you that a psychopath has an emotional IQ that's like a 5-year-old?" Kiehl asks. "Well, if that was the case, we'd make the same argument for individuals with low emotional IQ — that maybe they're not as deserving of punishment, not as deserving of culpability, etc."
This argument troubles Steven Erickson, a forensic psychologist and legal scholar at Widener University School of Law. He notes that alcoholics have brain abnormalities. Do we give them a pass if they kill someone while driving drunk?
At trial, Jonathan Brodie, a psychiatrist at NYU Medical School who was the prosecution's expert witness, went further. Even if Dugan's brain is abnormal, he testified, the brain does not dictate behavior.
"There may be many, many people who also have psychopathic tendencies and have similar scans, who don't do antisocial behavior, who don't rape and kill," Brodie says.
The jury seemed to zero in on the science, asking to reread all the testimony about the neuroscience during 10 hours of deliberation. But in the end, they sentenced Dugan to death. Dugan is appealing the sentence.