The crime was brutal. On November 4, 1989, after a night of heavy drinking, David Scott Detrich and a male coworker picked up a woman walking along the side of the road in Tucson, Arizona. After scoring some cocaine, the trio went back to her place, where, according to court documents, Detrich slit the woman’s throat and stabbed her 40 times. Later, the two men dumped her body in the desert.
A jury convicted Detrich of kidnapping and first-degree murder in 1995, and a judge sentenced him to death.
Detrich is still on death row today as the appeals process drags on, but in 2010, his lawyers achieved a victory of sorts. They claimed that Detrich had received “ineffective assistance of counsel” at his trial, because his original legal team had failed to present evidence of neuropsychological abnormalities and brain damage that might have swayed the court to give him a lesser sentence. A federal appeals court agreed. The ruling said, in effect, that Detrich had been denied his Constitutional right to a fair trial because his lawyers hadn’t called an expert witness to talk about his brain.
That judicial opinion is just one of nearly 1,600 examined in a recent study documenting the expanding use of brain science in the criminal-justice system. The study, by Nita Farahany at Duke University, found that the number of judicial opinions that mention neuroscientific evidence more than doubled between 2005 and 2012.