In this day of technology, lawyers and doctors are attempting to use brain scan to look into the mind of criminals. Think MRIs, think PET scans that look at people’s brains and try to figure out why they commit crimes. Is that useful? Is that something that we could depend on in a trial? We’ll talk about it. Speaking of trials, how about neurolaw? It is really making headlines lately and it has to do with trying to use the discoveries of neuroscience and try to apply them in a legal setting. We’ll talk about how useful neurolaw is and if it’s something that could continue to make headway in the future. And internet-based data, what does that mean? That means what if somebody posts something that is somewhat sketchy and then later they become the next mass shooter. Should we have seen those red flags in those social media posts? We can’t think of a better person to tackle all of those difficult subjects with than MCG Forensic Psychologist, Dr. Michael Vitacco, a Means Report veteran.

Brad Means: Dr. Vitacco, thanks as always for coming back.

Dr. Michael Vitacco: Thanks for having me.

Brad Means: Well, let’s take a look at this imaging that I talked about. That was the first bullet point we saw on our screen.

Dr. Michael Vitacco: Yes, sir.

Brad Means: Is it possible to take a photograph of someone’s brain and see if they are going to be a criminal or to see what made them commit a crime?

Dr. Michael Vitacco: Yeah, that’s a really emerging topic within the idea of neuroscience.

Brad Means: Yeah.

Dr. Michael Vitacco: And what has been going on is that some of these applications have been used in exactly that manner. The problem with this is that many of them are being used incorrectly. And people are using images to make these sort of assertions you just spoke about, like hey, this helps us understand this or this leads to this, when in fact, the science is not quite there yet. So a lot of these topics are actually, and these technologies are being misused. And that’s where, as a scientist and a forensic psychologist, we want to kind of put the brakes on some of these things and make sure we’re using it appropriately and correctly in scientifically backed manners.

Brad Means: For people who support this, do they look for plaque or irregularities in the human brain and say, ah, there you see, criminal.

Dr. Michael Vitacco: That’s exactly what they do. They look for primarily irregularities or different things, but the problem there with that is those irregularities are present in many people, including many people who never commit a crime. And because of that, just because an individual has a specific or atypical brain issue, it ultimately tells you very, very little. And it tells you almost nothing about their motive or different things like that which, when we get to the why is one of the most critical things we can think of.

Brad Means: Is it still too early in this, or are we already seeing things like this be admissible in court, a PET scan image, an MRI image, where the judge is accepting it into evidence?

Dr. Michael Vitacco: Well, that’s exactly a huge point. It’s being accepted often without the judge or the trier of fact giving it appropriate vetting. So often, it’s being admitted, and sometimes it’s being admitted wrongly.

Brad Means: So is it fair to say that what we’ve been talking about so far falls under this neurolaw umbrella?

Dr. Michael Vitacco: Yeah, neurolaw’s exactly kind of the name for it. It’s a subtype of neuroscience, where neuroscience is being specifically applied to legal issues. And so neurolaw, and there’s centers all over the country. So they’re trying to make strides in this way, but unfortunately, in many applications, it is being misused.

Brad Means: It seems like there would be a substantial amount of money to be made in this field.

Dr. Michael Vitacco: There is absolutely a substantial lot of money and there’s also backing from donors who want to get their scans or their particular equipment into this area because in civil lawsuits or various things, it can become quite lucrative. And I think that’s fine, I’m not speaking anything directly against that, but we need to make sure that we have the appropriate scientific backing before we engage in these types of leaps when we talk about what the brain images show and what they actually mean regarding human behavior.

Brad Means: What will it take to get there, more trials, years and years of research?

Dr. Michael Vitacco: That’s exactly right. We need to have years and years of research. We need to have strongly regulated scientific studies, like anything, and we need to then show, in replication, where we kind of repeat what’s been done, that these studies are actually showing us what they are.

Brad Means: We’ve talked before about the insanity defense.

Dr. Michael Vitacco: Yes.

Brad Means: And so I wanna talk about that and regardless of what an imaging machine shows, how you could determine if someone is insane. What’s the definition of insanity?

Dr. Michael Vitacco: Right, so insanity is, the kind of colloquial definition is where you have a mental illness, a serious and severe mental illness and because of that illness you don’t understand right from wrong at the time.

Brad Means: Okay.

Dr. Michael Vitacco: So that’s kind of what all states tend to use.

Brad Means: The mental illness component has to be present.

Dr. Michael Vitacco: Has to be present first and then, that it leads to someone not understanding right from wrong.

Brad Means: Okay, so you can’t have one without the other. In other words, you know, every child under the age of three is not insane.

Dr. Michael Vitacco: No.

Brad Means: They don’t know right or wrong.

Dr. Michael Vitacco: But they don’t know right from wrong.

Brad Means: But you have to have the mental illness there.

Dr. Michael Vitacco: Right.

Brad Means: All right, so how do you go about concluding that before you’re called as an expert witness to say, look my recommendation is that you consider this person insane.

Dr. Michael Vitacco: Well, and it happens very rarely, but what we try to do is look at total evidence that’s available. And really also it kind of gets into motives. We want to know if someone is mentally ill, why did they do what they did? For example, someone can have a mental illness, get angry at someone and act out. And that’s not insane, that’s just someone who’s angry versus someone who has a mental illness maybe thinks someone is after them and because of that mental illness and then acts against that. And that’s more of a prototypical, regular definition of what insanity looks like.

Brad Means: So when you get involved in those forensic psychological interviews take place in your office or in the jail cell, are you looking for someone who, are you looking to determine is someone has been insane their entire lives or if they’re just insane at the time of the offense?

Dr. Michael Vitacco: Well it only matters really at the time at the offense.

Brad Means: That’s all you’re concerned about. That’s all they want you to look at.

Dr. Michael Vitacco: Yes.

Brad Means: And you said more times than not, you don’t recommend insanity.

Dr. Michael Vitacco: By far, by probably 95, 90% of the time we don’t recommend insanity.

Brad Means: Why, most people aren’t insane?

Dr. Michael Vitacco: Most people are not insane. Most people when they do something, even if it’s not understandable, even if it’s heinous, even if we can’t understand it, they still understood that what they were doing was against the law and against the morals of society.

Brad Means: How quickly can you tell if someone is trying to dupe you and what do you look for?

Dr. Michael Vitacco: Well, you look for patterns of behavior over the course of time. So if there is a history of such things it’s very evident. It’s very hard to have a long standing mental illness and it never shows up anywhere.

Brad Means: Right.

Dr. Michael Vitacco: There’s always some kind of evidence that that is apparent.

Brad Means: Determining if someone can tell right from wrong seems like a huge, daunting task.

Dr. Michael Vitacco: It can be.

Brad Means: Even if the mental illness is there. So let’s say you’ve got that part checked off and now you’re going to the, do you know right from wrong part. Other than them telling you that they don’t know right from wrong, how do you determine that? A bunch of questions?

Dr. Michael Vitacco: A bunch of questions and then often what we do, I mean, many more times than not is we talk to people who saw the crime. And now days we often get just a ton of video evidence. It’s almost hard to walk anywhere or go anywhere now where there’s not video evidence of where you are, cell phone evidence and just a variety of things. And we take all that together and we sort of disentangle it to try to get as close of a picture as possible of this person’s behavior and then the ultimate motives for such a behavior.

Brad Means: Is it possible in the course of this brief interview together for you to kind of show me what it looks like and say look, here’s one time when I determined that this person was insane because they said this to me. Or there was a moment in the interview when I thought, okay this is officially an insane person.

Dr. Michael Vitacco: Yeah there’s never one moment. It’s usually a, several moments kind of put together. So and often like you kow, we’re going to talk to people around them so, how were acting the day it happened? How were they acting before that happened? Were they calm, were they agitated? And you collect all this data and that really helps inform our opinions of someone’s actual mental state at the time of the offense.

Brad Means: We talked earlier about these images, that neuroalaw outlets are using.

Dr. Michael Vitacco: Yeah, right.

Brad Means: And they’re becoming more and more popular. I know you’re among the naysayers. But does a criminal’s brain look different in some cases than others? I’ve heard that pedophiles might have tumors–

Dr. Michael Vitacco: Sure.

Brad Means: and that’s a way to know that they are a pedophile or might become one. Does the criminal brain sometimes actually look different?

Dr. Michael Vitacco: So we actually just published a paper in neuroethics on this topic of insanity defense and neurolaw. And there has been some evidence where, for example, there as a case where a teacher started having sexual urges towards a child. And through the course of a bunch of evaluations, they actually found a tumor pressing on it, and when that was removed, he kind of went back to not having these urges. What’s really important to note about that is that even while this tumor was present he was taking major steps to hide his behavior, to conceal inappropriate actions, to avoid his wife, and to hide some of these thoughts he was having. When somebody’s going through such pains to hide their behavior, that they know is illegal, that really suggests that they, despite the fact that they were having a hard time stopping themselves that they understood what they were doing was wrong. So even the fact that that tumor was present, still did not indicate that he did not understand the difference between right and wrong.

Brad Means: Sure, that behavior might have been there anyway.

Dr. Michael Vitacco: It could have been. But the mere fact that they were taking such steps to hide it and going through very elaborate processes was very informative. And even as we talked about the specific case, provided real thorough evidence despite the fact that there was a brain issue, that the individual still understood right from wrong. And that’s one of the primary limitations of neurolaw is it doesn’t get at that motive and that ability to sort of get at the ultimate behavior that speaks to the issue.

Brad Means: When we come back, we’re going to talk about some cases that have been in the news lately and why certain criminals may have behaved the way they did. As we continue our discussion with forensic psychologist, Dr. Michael Vitacco on The Means Report.

Part 2

Brad Means: Welcome back to The Means Report. We appreciate your staying with us as we continue to go into the mind of a criminal, delve deeply into the mind of a criminal. We covered insanity and what it takes to make that determination in our first segment. And what good are brain images when it comes to looking at the mind of a criminal. Dr. Michael Vitacco, forensic psychologist from Augusta University still with us. Sometimes when you’re watching those CSI type shows on TV you’ll see criminal being interviewed, interrogated.

Dr. Michael Vitacco: Right.

Brad Means: And you’ll see on the screen an image of their brain and the interviewer is trying to see how those brain waves react or respond to certain images or questions. Is that realistic?

Dr. Michael Vitacco: It’s somewhat realistic.

Brad Means: Yeah.

Dr. Michael Vitacco: But the behavior that can be gleaned from that and the overall insights of that behavior based on those brain waves is still very, very limited. So you know, some of these brain imaging tools they have have also now been used as lie detectors and things. And again different areas of your brain will activate. But even some of that information has been called into serious question.

Brad Means: Are you a lie detector fan?

Dr. Michael Vitacco: We don’t use it in our practice.

Brad Means: Yeah.

Dr. Michael Vitacco: No, but even so, in fact it’s often not even admissible in criminal trials so again those are things where we have to really improve our science before we start relying on such information especially when we’re talking about someone’s freedom. You know, these are high stakes sometimes.

Brad Means: I don’t want to burst anybody’s bubble, especially Marlena Wilson, our executive producer and director who loves CSI type shows. But I bet you sit there and shake your head a lot and say, that’s not really how it works.

Dr. Michael Vitacco: That happens all the time.

Brad Means: It does.

Dr. Michael Vitacco: And especially to where you know we see all these things being happen within in a very small period of time. You know we have evidence, convictions, trials, and it’s all done in 45 minutes plus commercials. That’s just not how life works. Often these things go on for years.

Brad Means: What’s the difference between a sociopath and a psychopath?

Dr. Michael Vitacco: That’s the same sort of thing is that sociopath is an older term. It really means someone who is antisocial and sort of lacks the ability and doesn’t truly care. They lack emotions.

Brad Means: Okay.

Dr. Michael Vitacco: Especially regarding other people.

Brad Means: Is that a form of mental illness?

Dr. Michael Vitacco: No, not by a legal definition.

Brad Means: Not by a legal definition.

Dr. Michael Vitacco: Right, being a psychopath does not excuse you from criminal behavior.

Brad Means: We’ve seen a couple of cases in the news recently. We saw just this past week before the recording of this Means Report a tragic case out of South Carolina, a six-year-old girl–

Dr. Michael Vitacco: I saw that.

Brad Means: whose body was found. A man’s body was found next to her, a 30-year-old man. The presumption is that he killed her and then killed himself.

Dr. Michael Vitacco: That’s right.

Brad Means: Take me through the killing yourself part of things. What would be the benefit or goal of a criminal, and we’re not convicting him. We’re just using this as an example because the case is in its early stages. of committing a heinous act against a child and then killing yourself never to be able to do that again. What’s that mindset and might that person have been determined insane one day?

Dr. Michael Vitacco: Yeah, so let me give, caveat this. I only know this from the news. I’ve not interviewed anyone so these are very speculative answers.

Brad Means: Absolutely, and my question too, I think I just told you all I know about it.

Dr. Michael Vitacco: Right so I don’t know this particular case or what motivated him. I mean it’s possible he felt tremendous guilt and he did it. It’s also possible he didn’t want to get caught and realized that his life was practically over anyway. There’s again several motives that could have come from that behavior. And it would take a much deeper dive into his psychology and where his head was at which could be done if it was needed. But I think, safe to say, there was some significant problems with that individual.

Brad Means: We saw Dylann Roof in the headlines a few years ago out of Charleston, the mass shooting at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, killed nine people.

Dr. Michael Vitacco: That’s right.

Brad Means: He had some disturbing social media posts.

Dr. Michael Vitacco: He did.

Brad Means: And so that brings me to my next topic which is can social media posts be red flags, and how would you know when they cross the line between just an angry person and a criminal?

Dr. Michael Vitacco: Well more and more now days in my field and across the board is we’re getting social media posts, instant messages as part of our discovery packet. When you consider over 70% of Americans engage in some sort of social media use, I certainly do, I assume you might have a Facebook page.

Brad Means: I do, yeah.

Dr. Michael Vitacco: Sure. That information can become very useful for law enforcement, for forensic mental health practitioners in sort of trying to help understand people. But certainly if someone is ranting and raving on social media, posting inappropriate things, now days law enforcement can be informed. We see it especially too, we have something called threat assessment and that’s a specific threat towards against a specific person, politicians often. And the Secret Service and other people very much rely on social media posts to provide them insights into who might be a danger.

Brad Means: Do they look for keywords or things like that because there are so many people out there posting, how do you narrow it down?

Dr. Michael Vitacco: Well you don’t narrow it down. What you have to hope is that someone helps you with that. You get a call from a concerned friend, a concerned relative that says, “Hey my friend is posting some really sort of, difficult stuff on social media. I think she should be looked at.” And that’s how often the law enforcement can get involved with that.

Brad Means: What about serving as a way to stop crimes before they happen?

Dr. Michael Vitacco: Absolutely.

Brad Means: Are you seeing that happen ever? I know a lot of your stuff is after the fact.

Dr. Michael Vitacco: My stuff is almost always after the fact, but we are seeing that more. We’re seeing people, like who make a discerning post or critical post or post that might be viewed as threatening and people calling the police. And the police often just stop by and get an eyes-on look at the individual an say, “What’s going on today, you okay?” Yeah I’m fine. And then they show them the post, and you know, sometimes they may even acknowledge, yeah I had some plans or I didn’t. And we see it too in schools. And we hear about people calling in information and the police being able to respond and being proactive in those things and that’s critical.

Brad Means: In most of the cases that you work, in most of those cases, do you interview the suspect or the defendant themselves or can your work be done just through that case file?

Dr. Michael Vitacco: In almost all our cases, we interview the defendant.

Brad Means: Okay.

Dr. Michael Vitacco: Now if the defendant doesn’t want to speak to us or there’s some other reasons we may not, but we always give the defendant an opportunity. We want to meet with them. We want to look at them. We want to evaluate them generally face to face. There are times when that isn’t necessary. But usually that’s what we do.

Brad Means: Is there a common thread that runs through most of the defendants you interview?

Dr. Michael Vitacco: No.

Brad Means: No, really?

Dr. Michael Vitacco: No, no. I once had a supervisor many years and this has stuck with me for about 20 years and he says, “Mike, you know forensic cases are always kind of like snowflakes. They all look the same but when you look at them very closely they each kind of have a different flavor.” And I found to be in my 20 years of experience that to be very true. That even on the outside they might look the same. When you really look closely at them, there’s some very subtle and sometimes nuance differences that are very critical.

Brad Means: What about from a societal standpoint, what we can do to make these bad things not happen or make people not turn evil. Do you ever spot anything in your interviews where you walk away saying, wow if someone had intervened here this person wouldn’t be across the jail cell from me.

Dr. Michael Vitacco: You know what’s interesting is that I’ve spoke on this before the various groups but I think if I could choose one thing and only one thing if we started with child abuse. If we started of not being as, and I’m not talking about not disciplining your child, I’m talking the abuse because–

Brad Means: A lot of these, are lot of these people abused?

Dr. Michael Vitacco: Many folks who engage in violent crimes have a history of abuse.

Brad Means: Yeah.

Dr. Michael Vitacco: It’s a marker for abuse.

Brad Means: So tell me what you’re talking about. Are you talking about spanking, whipping?

Dr. Michael Vitacco: No I’m talking about just significant and severe and persistent abuse and the like throughout the homes. And we’re seeing more and more of these cases throughout the country. Cases where families are doing really horrific things to kids and my thinking is, this is the tip of the iceberg. The fact that we’re just finding about about it means that there’s probably more about it than we even want to imagine. Recent case out of Iowa where a family was arrested for starving their child. We had a high profile case out of Atlanta where the mother did that to her daughter. So what we’re seeing is the sort of persistent physical and sexual abuse of children does often not lead to great outcomes.

Brad Means: Well my next question was going to be, do you see any hope for the future as far as making any progress any headway, making our society nicer and less crime prone? But I think you just answered it because it sounds hopeless. You can’t go knock on every door and see how a parent’s treating their child.

Dr. Michael Vitacco: You can’t. In fact there’s a recent case in Georgia where two adolescents were killed. And it’s going to be a tough trial, but it also involved family members and they were very good at hiding their abuse from the rest of the world. The best we can do is be vigilant. If we truly suspect something to make phone calls and to call the authorities. And even if we’re wrong, that’s okay.

Brad Means: You know, someone once told me, and if it was you, forgive me that school shootings are the new normal and that every time we talk about one on this broadcast that the point was, there’s going to be another one.

Dr. Michael Vitacco: We did talk about that.

Brad Means: Yeah, okay so to follow up on that, based on what you just said, if we’re seeing all these future criminals perhaps, who are in the child abuse stage right now and they’re going to come out of that house one day and go nuts, forgive me. Does it say to you that this problem is only going to get worse and that there’s really not much of a dent we can put in it?

Dr. Michael Vitacco: I don’t know. I think that those are fair questions. I think we as a society need to do more. But ultimately like I’ve always talked about school shootings is there’s going to be another one but that doesn’t mean that our schools aren’t safe, right. So it’s still a small portion of people. Same thing here. But as much as we can get rid of that at an early age, as much as we can eliminate and minimize abuse, we’re doing everyone in society a favor.

Brad Means: Yeah but you’re right, bottom line, it’s up to the rest of us to spot it.

Dr. Michael Vitacco: That’s right.

Brad Means: Those parents aren’t going to do it.

Dr. Michael Vitacco: No.

Brad Means: Michael Vitacco, our 30 minutes have flown by. Thank you for being here. Please come back soon.

Dr. Michael Vitacco: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.

Brad Means: Absolutely, a fascinating topic, looking into the mind of a criminal, why they do what they do.