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Brains On Trial With Alan Alda

Airs Wednesdays, September 11 & 18, 2013 at 10 p.m. on KPBS TV

Alan Alda poses in front of the jury, U.S. District Court of Southern Distric...

Credit: Courtesy of Michael J Lutch

Above: Alan Alda poses in front of the jury, U.S. District Court of Southern District of New York 500 Pearl St. New York, N.Y.

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, 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.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Michael J Lutch

The defendant, Jimmy Moran, and his defense team, spearheaded by attorney Tony Ricco.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Graham Chedd

Alan Alda goes with Dr. Kent Kiehl to the New Mexico Corrections Facility in Grants, New Mexico 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.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Alexandra McHale

Alan Alda meets with Dr. Marcel Just to see if fMRI scans can tell what a person is thinking, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Graham Chedd

Looking at Duke University law professor Nita Farahany's results from the scanner in Dr. Wagner's lab at Stanford University, Palo Alto, Calif.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Graham Chedd

While at Stanford University, Alan Alda meets with Dr. Robert Sapolsky discussing how criminal law will need to change by incorporating neuroscientific evidence, Palo Alto, Calif.

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.

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.

Episode One: "Determining Guilt" airs Wednesday, September 11 at 10 p.m. - On trial is Jimmy Moran, who at 18 took part in a store robbery during which the store owner’s wife was shot and grievously injured. Presiding is distinguished U.S. District Judge Jed S. Rakoff, who has a longstanding interest in neuroscience and its conceivable effect on criminal law.

The trial raises common questions: Is a witness lying? How reliable is eyewitness testimony? What’s the best way to avoid a biased jury? How well can the defendant’s intentions be judged? Alan Alda explores how brain-scanning technology is providing insights into these questions and discusses the implications of neuroscience entering the courtroom.

Episode Two: "Deciding Punishment" airs Wednesday, September 18 at 10 p.m. - Jimmy Moran is found guilty of badly injuring a woman during a robbery. In the sentencing phase of the trial, Judge Rakoff hears arguments from the court-appointed psychiatrist, the attorneys, the victim’s husband and Jimmy himself.

Meanwhile, Alan Alda discovers how neuroscience is already influencing the sentencing of defendants — especially young defendants — by revealing how the immature teenage brain is vulnerable to foolish and impulsive acts.

Before Judge Rakoff pronounces Jimmy’s sentence, Alda meets a judge who has volunteered to have his own brain probed as he makes sentencing decisions.

Follow @Brainsontrial on Twitter, and explore the Science Blog at


Using a fictional crime — a convenience store robbery that goes horribly wrong — this two-part program builds a gripping courtroom drama. The program probes the brains of the major participants —defendant, witnesses, jurors, judge — while Alan Alda visits neuroscientists who explore how brains work when they become entangled with the law.

The Business of Commercial FMRI Lie Detection

Alan Alda speaks with Stanford Law School professor Hank Greely about how neuroscience will affect views on fMRI lie detection. Mr. Greely brings a wealth of knowledge regarding the intersection of law and neuroscience, and in particular, what areas of neuroscience he expects will change the law most. Visit the BRAINS ON TRIAL website for more information.

Correlating Brain Scans with Behavior

Alan Alda sat down with Dr. Joshua Greene to discuss the role neuroscience might play inside a courtroom. Dr. Greene, a psychologist, believes that neuroscience might not be the best of the social sciences to accurately assess behavior, at least right now. He does have high hopes for this convergence believing biology, genetics, and background should all be weighted equally when determining criminal intent. Visit the BRAINS ON TRIAL website for more information.

The Limits of fMRI Brain Scanning

Nancy Kanwisher explained to Alan what fMRI scans tell scientists and how they glean information. She also explained instances of where fMRI brain scans can be both useful and not useful, leading scientists to often consult other types of brian imaging, like MEG or EEG. Visit the BRAINS ON TRIAL website for more information.

When Neuroscience Meets Criminal Law

Alan Alda took some time with Owen Jones, Director of the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience. An expert on behavioral biology and its effect on the criminal justice system, Mr. Jones discusses the potential role of neuroscience in aiding the criminal justice system’s assessment of negligent behavior. Visit the BRAINS ON TRIAL website for more information.

The Limits of Neuroscience Evidence in Court

Alan Alda visits with law and psychiatry professor Dr. Stephen Morse. Dr. Morse makes the case that neuroscience data isn’t yet relevant to determining intent and getting to the heart of why people make bad decisions. Coining the term “Brain Overclaim,” Morse provides a unique and often overlooked assessment of how neuroscience research can effectively assist the Criminal Justice System. Dr. Morse is also an advisor to the BRAINS ON TRIAL program.

Alan Alda with Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University

Throughout his science investigative career, Alan Alda has met with Dr. Sapolsky several times. In this video they discuss what Neuroscience could contribute to the alternatives to incarceration: rehabilitation, therapy, and more. Dr. Sapolksy is well-known for his early work studying primates in Kenya. His current research revolves around stress levels and the relationship with neurodegeneration. Visit the BRAINS ON TRIAL website for more information.

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