Indian Courts Criticized for Using Brain Scans

September 16, 2008 10:48 AM
by Denis Cummings
The practice of brain scanning, or “brain fingerprinting,” has come under scrutiny after Indian courts used it to convict two murderers.

‘Interesting and Disturbing’

In June, Indian student Aditi Sharma was convicted of murdering her ex-boyfriend Udit Bharati by giving him a “Prasad” laced with arsenic. A central part of the case against her was Brain Electrical Oscillation Signature (BEOS) profiling, a brain-scanning technique developed by Indian neuroscientist Champadi Raman Mukundan.

Sharma underwent a BEOS test, which involves an electroencephalograph measuring the electrical activity in her brain. Wearing a cap with 32 electrodes connected to a computer, Sharma sat quietly as she was read a description of the crime in the first person. When she recognized an event, specific parts of her brain that contain “experiential knowledge” lit up and were detected by the BEOS computer.

“Aditi was found to have experiential knowledge for having a plan to murder Udit by giving him arsenic,” writes The Times of India. “Experiential knowledge was also found of her having gone to a temple to collect ‘prasad’, buying arsenic from a shop, calling up Udit and giving him the poison-laced ‘prasad.’”

Sharma became the second Indian this year to be convicted with help from the BEOS test. Mumbai crime branch chief Rakesh Maria, who prosecuted the first case, stresses that the BEOS test is only part of the case. “The technique needs to be corroborated with other evidence,” he said.

Mukundan created his BEOS system using technology and theories from several American scientists, including Lawrence Farwell, Emanuel Donchin and J. Peter Rosenfeld. Farwell, pioneer of “brain fingerprinting,” has been a major advocate of brain scanning and has used it to help free a convicted murderer. Donchin and Rosenfield, however, believe it is not ready to be used in court.

Technologies which are neither seriously peer-reviewed nor independently replicated are not, in my opinion, credible,” Rosenfeld says. “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.”

India may soon drop the practice after criticism from a six-member committee headed by the director of the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences. It found that there are too many possibilities for error that have yet to be addressed and that there is “sub-optimal scientific basis for them to be used as evidence in court of law.”

Background: Brain fingerprinting

Lawrence Farwell is the pioneer of “brain fingerprinting,” one of the inspirations for the BEOS system. In the 1980s, he and Professor Emanuel Donchin at the University of Illinois discovered that the P300 and MERMER brain responses could be used to determine whether a subject recognized an event.

He founded Brain Fingerprinting Laboratories and has advocated for the use of brain fingerprinting in the criminal justice system. He argues that it is far more reliable than polygraphs or other forms of lie detectors.

“It is highly scientific, brain fingerprinting doesn’t have anything to do with the emotions, whether a person is sweating or not; it simply detects scientifically if that information is stored in the brain,” he described. “It doesn’t depend upon the subjective interpretation of the person conducting the test. The computer monitors the information and comes up with information present or information absent.”

He has used his process in defense of two convicted murderers and helped to free one of them, though brain fingerprinting was just one of many factors that led to the conviction reversal. In the second, more high-profile case in 2004, Farwell administered the test to Oklahoma death row inmate Jimmie Ray Slaughter, who had been convicted of killing his girlfriend and daughter. The test showed that Slaughter did not recognize many of the events that supposedly occurred during his crime, indicating that he was innocent.

However, many in the scientific community doubted the legitimacy of the test, including Donchin. “We published the seminal paper that started it all and by which I still stand,” he said. “The paper, however, makes it very clear that these are preliminary investigations and that much research is needed before the paradigm we describe can be applied to real life. Unfortunately, the necessary research has never been conducted.”

The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals rejected Slaughter’s appeal and he was executed in 2005. Farwell has continued to push for the use of brain fingerprinting in court, and is now presenting his work to the Department of Homeland Security for use during interrogations of terrorist suspects.

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