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Brains on Trial
Air date: 09/11/2013

Brains on Trial with Alan Alda Explores How Neuroscience Could Change the Law

The two-part program premieres Wednesday, September 11 and 18, 2013 at 10 p.m. on PBS

 

As brain scanning techniques advance, their influence in criminal cases is becoming critically important. An innovative two-part series, Brains on Trial with Alan Alda, airing Wednesday, September 11 and 18, 2013, 10-11 p.m. on PBS (check local listings), explores how the growing ability to separate truth from lies, even decode people’s thoughts and memories, may radically affect how criminal trials are conducted in the future.

Brains on Trial centers around the trial of a fictional crime: a robbery staged in a convenience store that has been filmed by the store’s security cameras. A teenager stands accused of the attempted murder of the store clerk’s wife who was shot during the crime. While the crime is fictional, the trial is conducted before a real federal judge and argued by real practicing attorneys. The program is divided into two-parts: the first hour examines the guilt phase of the trial concluding with the jury’s verdict; the second hour looks at the sentencing phase, when arguments for and against a severe sentence are heard.

As the trial unfolds, Alda visits with neuroscientists whose research has already influenced some Supreme Court decisions, as well as Duke University law professor Nita Farahany, a member of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. On these visits, neuroscientists show how functional MRIs and other brain scanning techniques are exploring lie detection, facial recognition, memory decoding, racial bias, brain maturity, intention, and even emotions. The research Alda discovers is at the center of a controversy as to how this rapidly expanding ability to peer into people’s minds and decode their thoughts and feelings could – or should – affect trials like the one presented in the program. As DNA evidence has played a major role in exonerating innocent prisoners, Brains on Trial asks if neuroscience can make the criminal justice system more just.

Alda, a seven-time Emmy Award-winner, has a long-time interest in science and in promoting a greater public understanding of science. He hosted the award-winning PBS series Scientific American Frontiers for eleven years, on which he interviewed hundreds of scientists from around the world. In 2010, Alda hosted a science series on PBS called The Human Spark. In 2006, for his efforts in helping to broaden the public’s understanding of science, he was presented with the National Science Board’s Public Service Award.  He is a Visiting Professor at Stony Brook University’s Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, where he is helping develop innovative programs that enable scientists to communicate more effectively with the public.

“I was surprised to see how well brain scientists are beginning to piece together what’s going on inside our heads, sometimes before we’re even aware of what’s going on in there ourselves,” commented Alda. “As I talked with scientists and jurists on this show, I became convinced that before this new research makes its way into the courts, we need to think about what it could mean to our system of justice.”

“Lawyers and neuroscientists have never had much in common,” said Graham Chedd, executive producer and writer of Brains on Trial. “As the ability to peer into people’s brains is revealing how minds work when entangled with the law, debating whether brain science should enter the courtroom is becoming more urgent.”

Brains on Trial is produced for PBS by The Chedd-Angier Production Company. For Chedd-Angier, Executive Producer/Writer/Director is Graham Chedd. Editor is David Berenson. Associate Producer is Alexandra McHale.

Funding for Brains on Trial is provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family.

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Photos
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Brains on Trial

The defendant, Jimmy Moran, and his defense team, spearheaded by attorney Tony Ricco. US District Court of Southern District of New York 500 Pearl St. New York, NY. Photo Credit: Michael J Lutch

Brains on Trial

Alan talks with Dr. Nora Volkow, head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse to discuss the brain's role in addiction. Brookhaven National Laboratory Upton, NY. Photo Credit: Alexandra McHale

Brains on Trial

Alan meets with Dr. Marcel Just to see if fMRI scans can tell what a person is thinking. Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA. Photo Credit: Alexandra McHale

Brains on Trial

Alan goes with Dr. Kent Kiehl to the New Mexico Corrections Facility in Grants, NM to test a psychopath in Dr. Kiehl's mobile fMRI unit. Kiehl has been scanning prisoners for years to better understand the brain of a psychopath and behaviors associated. New Mexico Corrections Facility in Grants, NM. Photo Credit: Graham Chedd

Brains on Trial

Nita Farahany accompanies Alan to Stanford University in the lab of Anthony Wagner. Wagner has been working on an algorithm that can detect if a person has seen a face but doesn't recall it from memory. Stanford University Palo Alto, CA. Photo Credit: Alexandra McHale

Brains on Trial

While at Stanford University, Alan meets with Dr. Robert Sapolsky discussing how criminal law will need to change by incorporating neuroscientific evidence. Stanford University Palo Alto, CA. Photo Credit: Graham Chedd

Brains on Trial

Looking at Nita's results from the scanner in Dr. Wagner's lab at Stanford University. Stanford University Palo Alto, CA. Photo Credit: Graham Chedd

Brains on Trial

Dr. Anthony Wagner and Alan discuss implications of his algorithm and how they could affect criminal law. Stanford University Palo Alto, CA. Photo Credit: Graham Chedd

Brains on Trial

Alan helps a young participant in Dr. Bea Luna's lab. Luna's research shows how adolescents cannot perform certain attention tasks that come easily to both adults and children. University of Pittsburgh, PA. Photo Credit: Alexandra McHale

Brains on Trial

The clerk in our story, Amed Al Laz, testifies in Jimmy's sentencing. His wife was shot and gravely injured in the robbery of his convenience store. US District Court of Southern District of New York 500 Pearl St. New York, NY. Photo Credit: Michael J Lutch

Brains on Trial

Alan at the trial. US District Court of Southern District of New York 500 Pearl St. New York, NY. Michael J Lutch

Brains on Trial

Alan poses in front of the jury. US District Court of Southern District of New York 500 Pearl St. New York, NY. Photo Credit: Michael J Lutch

Brains on Trial

Alan poses in front of the jury. US District Court of Southern District of New York 500 Pearl St. New York, NY. Photo Credit: Michael J Lutch

Brains on Trial

The defendant, Jimmy Moran, in court. US District Court of Southern District of New York 500 Pearl St. New York, NY. Photo Credit: Michael J Lutch