A Candle in the Dark

A look on science, politics, religion and events

Brain scans as evidence in Indian courts

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The Nature blog, the Great Beyond links to this interesting article from the NY Times

India’s use of brain scans in courts dismays critics

Now, well before any consensus on the technology’s readiness, India has become the first country to convict someone of a crime relying on evidence from this controversial machine: a brain scanner that produces images of the human mind in action and is said to reveal signs that a suspect remembers details of the crime in question.
….

The woman, Aditi Sharma, was accused of killing her former fiancé, Udit Bharati. They were living in Pune when Sharma met another man and eloped with him to Delhi. Later Sharma returned to Pune and, according to prosecutors, asked Bharati to meet her at a McDonald’s. She was accused of poisoning him with arsenic-laced food.

Sharma, 24, agreed to take a BEOS test in Mumbai, the capital of Maharashtra. (Suspects may be tested only with their consent, but forensic investigators say many agree because they assume it will spare them an aggressive police interrogation.)

After placing 32 electrodes on Sharma’s head, investigators said, they read aloud their version of events, speaking in the first person (“I bought arsenic;” “I met Udit at McDonald’s”), along with neutral statements like “The sky is blue,” which help the software distinguish memories from normal cognition.

For an hour, Sharma said nothing. But the relevant nooks of her brain where memories are thought to be stored buzzed when the crime was recounted, according to Joseph, the state investigator. The judge endorsed Joseph’s assertion that the scans were proof of “experiential knowledge” of having committed the murder, rather than just having heard about it.

In the only other significant judicial statement on BEOS, a judge in 2006 in Gujarat denied the test the status of “concluded proof” but wrote that it corroborated already solid evidence from other sources.

In writing his opinion on the Pune murder case, Judge S. S. Phansalkar-Joshi included a nine-page defense of BEOS.

Sharma insists that she is innocent.

What I’d like to know is whether this technology has been independently tested? How does someone know whether the answers that the test gives are reliable and can be used in court?


Despite the technology’s promise — some believe it could transform investigations as much as DNA evidence has — experts in psychology and neuroscience were almost uniformly troubled that it was used to win a criminal conviction before being validated by any independent study and reported in a respected scientific journal.

Publication of data from testing of the scans would allow other scientists to judge its merits — and the validity of the studies — during peer reviews.

“Technologies which are neither seriously peer-reviewed nor independently replicated are not, in my opinion, credible,” said Rosenfeld, a psychologist and neuroscientist at Northwestern University and one of the early developers of electroencephalogram-based lie detection. “The fact that an advanced and sophisticated democratic society such as India would actually convict persons based on an unproven technology is even more incredible.”

Touché (Except for the last sentence)

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Written by parseval

September 15, 2008 at 5:59 am

Posted in crime, science

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