Vol. 11, No. 2, 2005 Page 1&3


A study of juveniles condemned to death reports compelling evidence that they exhibited serious neurological impairment at the time they committed their crimes.

Dorothy Otnow Lewis and colleagues evaluated 18 males who had received the death penalty in Texas. All had been 17 years old at the time they committed murder. At the time of the evaluations, the subjects were in their mid-20s. Each subject underwent neurological, neuropsychological, psychiatric, and educational evaluations.

The researchers report that:

The researchers note that despite the clear neurological impairments of their subjects, it appeared that only four had undergone pretrial psychiatric evaluations, and none had received pretrial neurologic or neuropsychological testing. Also, none had received neuropsychiatric evaluations prior to sentencing. "Unfortunately," they say, "in cases like these, a clinician's failure to investigate thoroughly the psychiatric, neurologic, and environmental factors influencing behavior can literally mean the difference between life and death."

The researchers cite current evidence showing that the prefrontal cortex and temporal lobes (both critical to reasoning and self-control) do not mature until late adolescence. Teens with brain dysfunction and/or mental illness, they note, would be even more vulnerable to impairments in judgment and impulse control. Thus, they say, "Our data... raise a question of ethics: to what degree does it behoove our justice system to modify its criteria for mitigation and culpability and adopt rules consistent with the findings of early 21st century neuroscience?"

In earlier research involving adult murderers (see related article, Crime Times, 1995, Vol. 1, No. 4, Page 1), study coauthor Pamela Blake and colleagues reported that "specific neurologic diagnoses could be established in 20 of the 31 subjects."


"Ethics questions raised by the neuropsychiatric, neuropsychological, educational, developmental, and family characteristics of 18 juveniles awaiting execution in Texas," Dorothy Otnow Lewis, Catherine A. Yeager, Pamela Blake, Barbara Bard, and Maren Strenziok, Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, Vol. 32, 2004, 408-29. Address: Dorothy Otnow Lewis, 10 St. Ronan Terrace, New Haven, CT 06510, dorothy.lewis@yale.edu.

Return to:
[Author Directory] [Front Page] [Issue Index] [Subject Index] [Title Index]