April, 2015

Seattle Diversion Program
Shows Success

A program started in Seattle in 2011 called Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, shows a success rate for addicts and prostitutes of up to a 60% less likelihood of being re-arrested (in comparison to a control group).  203 participants were picked-up by police for either drug or prostitution offenses, or for suspicion of such activity, but were not booked.  The participants were instead referred to a case manager and provided with motel rooms, food, drug treatment, job training, and even such things as yoga classes and art supplies, and “any service that could clear whatever roadblocks are in the way for somebody to make behavioral changes,” according to Lisa Daugaard, policy director at King County’s Public Defender Association.

Eligibility is determined by police, who consider a variety of criteria including that a participant cannot have a history of serious violent crimes, or exploiting minors in drug-dealing.

A similar program was started in Santa Fe, New Mexico last year, and several other cities are looking to start similar programs.

A cost-benefit analysis is due to be published later this spring.

Source:  Gene Johnson, “Seattle attempt to keep addicts out of jail shines in study,” www.washingtonpost.com, April 8, 2015: http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/seattle-attempt-to-keep-addicts-out-of-jail-shines-in-study/2015/04/08/867d936c-de19-11e4-b6d7b9bc8acf16f7_story.html.

Brain-Scans Show Guilt-Area in
Killing Simulations

The results of a study published online on March 9, 2015, “The neural correlates of justified and unjustified killing: an fMRI study,” [the full-study is available only to Oxford Journal subscribers] are described as showing differences in brain activity for those committing perceived justified killings, e.g., soldiers killing enemies in a war-scenario, from those killing innocent civilians.

The abstract of the study stated that the “neural underpinnings distinguishing between justified and unjustified killing are largely unknown,” so, to gain an understanding of the processes, study participants were involved in ‘first-person perspective’ animated videos where the participants shot both enemy soldiers and innocent civilians.  The lateral orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) area in the brain was activated more when civilians were shot.  The study found that the greater the guilt felt by a participant, the greater was the response of the lateral OFC.  Neural mechanisms, including the OFC, associated with harming others, were less active “when the violence against a particular group [was] seen as justified.”

An article at ScienceDaily quoted Dr. Pascal Molenberghs of the School of Psychological Sciences at Monash University, as saying, “The findings show that when a person is responsible for what they see as justified or unjustified violence, they will have different feelings of guilt associated with that – for the first time we can see how this guilt relates to specific brain activation.”  The researchers, according to the article, plan to further study how people become desensitized to violence, and “how personality and group membership of both perpetrator and victim influence these processes.”

Sources:  Monash University, "Brain scans reveal how people 'justify' killing," www.sciencedaily.com, 8 April 2015: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/04/150408100651.htm; P. Molenberghs, C. Ogilvie, W. R. Louis, J. Decety, J. Bagnall, P. G. Bain, “The neural correlates of justified and unjustified killing: an fMRI study,” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2015; DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsv027 

Heavy Marijuana Users May
Develop False Memories

A recent article in the DailyMail described a study that used neuroimaging to compare brain activity of heavy cannabis users to that of non-users.  The study, conducted by the Biomedical Research Institute of Hospital de Sant Pau and the Autonomous University of Barcelona, found that the heavy users had a less active hippocampus an area associated with storing and retrieving memories than did non-users.

The participants were shown a series of words and several minutes later shown the exact same series, but with some new words included.  The participants were asked to recall and identify the words in the first showing.  The heavy cannabis users “believed they had seen the semantically related new words more often than people in the control group.”

Memory deficiencies were found in the heavy users even though the users had stopped using one month prior to the testing.  The researchers stated that the findings “show a neural basis and suggest a subtle compromise of brain mechanisms involved in reality monitoring.” Also, “[t]his lingering diminished ability to tell true from false may have medical and legal implications.”

A similar, and more recent study referenced in the article found that teenagers who smoked cannabis for three years developed an abnormally-shaped hippocampus within several years, and the teenagers who had smoked performed 18% worse in long-term memory tests in comparison to non-smokers.  That study was conducted two years after the participants had stopped smoking cannabis.

On the other hand, the article also referenced a study in the U.S. in 2014, that found that “extremely low” levels of THC may slow or halt the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.  Those results, explained the lead author of the study, Professor Cuanthal Cao, were due to THC decreasing the amount of amyloid beta in the brain.

Source:  Ellie Zolfagharifard, “Marijuana users may have ‘false memories’: Brain scans reveal how cannabis smokers can live in their own reality,” www.dailymail.com, April 22, 2015: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3051326/Marijuana-users-false-memories-Brain-scans-reveal-cannabis-smokers-live-reality.html

Study Finds Vast Errors in FBI and
Justice Department Hair-Analysis

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Innocence Project have been assisting the government with post-conviction review of forensic testimony by the FBI Laboratory’s microscopic comparison unit examiners in about 2,500 cases.  According to a recent article, the government has now acknowledged that 26 of the 28 forensic examiners in the hair comparison unit “overstated forensic matches in ways that favored prosecutors in more than 95 percent of the 268 trials reviewed.”   Thirty-two of the defendants whose cases were reviewed had been sentenced to death; execution has already been carried out, or the prisoner died while in prison, in fourteen of those cases.  Four defendants had already been exonerated.  Peter Neufeld, a co-founder of the Innocence Project, was quoted in the article as saying that the “three-decade use of microscopic hair analysis to incriminate defendants was a complete disaster.”

The article noted that in the District of Columbia, where all convictions involving FBI forensic hair evidence have already been reviewed, seven defendants were convicted in trials where flawed FBI evidence played a role.  Of those seven, three have been exonerated through DNA testing and two more were exonerated through court proceedings.  Those five men had, by that time, each served between 20 and 30 years in prison.

The FBI and Justice Department stated they will devote resources for review of all the cases, and they “are committed to ensuring that affected defendants are notified of past errors and that justice is done in every instance.”  The FBI, as of mid-April, has about 1,200 cases remaining to be reviewed.

The initial federal investigation began after a 2012 Washington Post study suggested that flawed hair matches may have led to the wrongful convictions of hundreds of people since the 1970s.  Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley and member Patrick J. Leahy, have requested the FBI conduct a “root-cause analysis” to avoid recurrences of such errors.

Sources:  Spencer S. Hsu, “FBI overstated forensic hair matches in nearly all trials before 2000,” www.washingtonpost.com, April 18, 2015: http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/crime/fbi-overstated-forensic-hair-matches-in-nearly-all-criminal-trials-for-decades/2015/04/18/39c8d8c6-e515-11e4-b510-962fcfabc310_story.html; Norman L. Reimer, “The Hair Microscopy Review Project: An Historic Breakthrough For Law Enforcement and A Daunting Challenge For the Defense Bar,” The Champion, July, 2013:  http://www.nacdl.org/Champion.aspx?id=29488

by Neil Leithauser
Associate Editor