Prof's research finds way into Supreme Court brief

by John Mitchell | 10/25/04 5:00am

A Dartmouth psychology professor's research is playing an important role in a case on juvenile capital punishment currently before the Supreme Court.

Professor Abigail Baird's research, which shows that cognitive development continues well past the age of legal adulthood, has been cited in amicus briefs submitted to the Court by the American Medical Association in the case of Roper v. Simmons.

The brief argues that the defendant, who was 17 at the time of crime, has a compromised mental state because of his young age and should not be executed for his role in the grisly murder of a woman.

The brief also seeks to draw parallels with previous court precedent. The Supreme Court ruled more than a decade ago that states cannot execute mentally retarded people, because it qualifies as cruel and unusual punishment. Those with Down's syndrome and others with compromised level of cognitive development are exempted from capital punishment.

Baird's research supports these claims. Her studies, and those of her colleagues, have shown that the brain continues maturing until about age 25. This continual progress affects teen male cognitive function, Baird said.

"Brain growth doesn't force anyone to do anything, but it does make certain behaviors more or less likely," she said.

Baird completed a study commonly known as the Good Idea, Bad Idea test. She created a list of actions, and requested that subjects press one button if they believed the behavior to be a good idea, and a second if they believed it to be bad. When monitoring brain activity during these decisions, Baird found that adults had a nearly thoughtless, knee-jerk reaction to potentially dangerous activities.

Teens, especially males, did not have this visceral reaction. Instead, they considered the pros and cons of activities immediately shunned by their elders, like riding a bicycle down a set of stairs.

Because of these cognitive disparities, those appealing Simmons' conviction believe that teenage criminals should not be punished identically to adult criminals.

Baird said she doesn't advocate relieving teen criminals from all responsibility for their actions, but emphasized that the brain structure differences between a typical 18-year-old and that of a 25-year-old are enough to grant them the same break U.S. laws have given to others with compromised brain function.

While Baird expressed excitement that her work was being used and cited so extensively, she also expressed concern.

"There is plenty of history of this type of informing science leading to agenda driven science, bad science," she cautioned.

Despite her worries, Baird nevertheless said that her findings have valuable implications.

"If the age [for execution] is moved up, we'll make fewer mistakes in sentencing kids to a punishment that we can't take back," she said.