Tag Archives: law

Brain scans are saving convicted murderers from death row–but should they?

Over a decade ago, a brain-mapping technique known as a quantitative electroencephalogram (qEEG) was first used in a death penalty case, helping keep a convicted killer and serial child rapist off death row. It achieved this by swaying jurors that traumatic brain injury (TBI) had left him prone to impulsive violence.

In the years since, qEEG has remained in a weird stasis, inconsistently accepted in a small number of death penalty cases in the USA. In some trials, prosecutors fought it as junk science; in others, they raised no objections to the imaging: producing a case history built on sand. Still, this handful of test cases could signal a new era where the legal execution of humans becomes outlawed through science.

Quantifying criminal behavior to prevent it

As it stands, if science cannot quantify or explain every event or action in the universe, then we remain in chaos with the very fabric of life teetering on nothing but conjecture. But DNA evidentiary status aside, isn’t this what happens in a criminal court case? So why is it so hard to integrate verified neuroimaging into legal cases? Of course, one could make a solid argument that it would be easier to simply do away with barbaric death penalties and concentrate on stopping these awful crimes from occurring in the first instance, but this is a different debate.

The problem is more complex than it seems. Neuroimaging could be used not just to exempt the mentally ill from the death penalty but also to explain horrendous crimes to the victims or their families. And just as crucial, could governments start implementing measures to prevent this type of criminal behavior using electrotherapy or counseling to ‘rectify’ abnormal brain patterns? This could lead down some very slippery slopes.

Especially it’s not just death row cases that are questioning qEEG — nearly every injury lawsuit in the USA also now includes a TBI claim. With Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRIs) and Computed tomography (CT) being generally expensive, lawyers are constantly seeking new ways to prove brain dysfunction. Readers should note that both of these neuroimaging techniques are viewed as more accurate than qEEG but can only provide a single, static image of the neurological condition – and thus provide no direct measurement of functional, ongoing brain activity.

In contrast, the cheaper and quicker qEEG testing purports to monitor active brain activity to diagnose many neurological conditions continuously and could one-day flag those more inclined to violence, enabling early interventional therapy sessions and one-to-one help, focusing on preventing the problem.

But until we can reach this sort of societal level, defense and human rights lawyers have been attempting to slowly phase out legal executions by using brain mapping – to explain why their convicted clients may have committed these crimes. Gradually moving from the consequences of mental illness and disorders to understanding these conditions more.

The sad case of Nikolas Cruz

But the questions surrounding this technology will soon be on trial again in the most high-profile death penalty case in decades: Florida vs. Nikolas Cruz. On the afternoon of February 14, 2018, Cruz opened fire on school children and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland when he was just 19 years of age. Now classed as the deadliest school shooting in the country’s history, the state charged the former Stoneman Douglas High student with the premeditated murder of 17 school children and staff and the attempted murder of a further seventeen people. 

With the sentencing expected in April 2022, Cruz’s defense lawyers have enlisted qEEG experts as part of their case to persuade jurors that brain defects should spare him the death penalty. The Broward State Attorney’s Office signaled in a court filing last month that it will challenge the technology and ask a judge to exclude the test results—not yet made public—from the case.

Cruz has already pleaded guilty to all charges, but a jury will now debate whether to hand down the death penalty or life in prison.

According to a court document filed recently, Cruz’s defense team intends to ask the jury to consider mitigating factors. These include his tumultuous family life, a long history of mental health disorders, brain damage caused by his mother’s drug addiction, and claims that a trusted peer sexually abused him—all expected to be verified using qEEG.

After reading the flurry of news reports on the upcoming case, one can’t help but wonder why, even without the use of qEEG, someone with a record of mental health issues at only 19 years old should be on death row. And as authorities and medical professionals were aware of Cruz’s problems, what were the preventative-based failings that led to him murdering seventeen individuals? Have these even been addressed or corrected? Unlikely.

On a positive note, prosecutors in several US counties have not opposed brain mapping testimony in more recent years. According to Dr. David Ross, CEO of NeuroPAs Global and qEEG expert, the reason is that more scientific papers and research over the years have validated the test’s reliability. Helping this technique gain broader use in the diagnosis and treatment of cognitive disorders, even though courts are still debating its effectiveness. “It’s hard to argue it’s not a scientifically valid tool to explore brain function,” Ross stated in an interview with the Miami Herald.

What exactly is a quantitative electroencephalogram (qEEG)?

To explain what a qEEG is, first, you must know what an electroencephalogram or EEG does. These provide the analog data for computerized qEEGs that record the electrical potential difference between two electrodes placed on the outside of the scalp. Multiple electrodes (generally >20) are connected in pairs to form various patterns called montages, resulting in a series of paired channels of EEG activity. The results appear as squiggly lines on paper—brain wave patterns that clinicians have used for decades to detect evidence of neurological problems.

More recently, trained professionals have computerized this data to create qEEG – translating raw EEG data using mathematical algorithms to help analyze brainwave frequencies. Clinicians then compare this statistical analysis against a database of standard or neurotypical brain types to discern those with abnormal brain function that could cause criminal behavior in death row cases.

While this can be true, results can still go awry due to incorrect electrode placement, unnatural imaging, inadequate band filtering, drowsiness, comparisons using incorrect control databases, and choice of timeframes. Furthermore, processing can yield a large number of clinically irrelevant data. These are some reasons that the usefulness of qEEG remains controversial despite the volume of published research. However, many of these discrepancies can be corrected by simply using trained medical professionals to operate the apparatus and interpret the data.

Just one case is disrupting the use of this novel technology

Yet, despite this easy correction, qEEG is not generally accepted by the relevant scientific community to diagnose traumatic brain injuries and is therefore inadmissible under Frye v. the United States. An archaic case from way back in 1923 based on a polygraph test, the trial came a mere 17-years after Cajal and Golgi won a Nobel Prize for producing slides and hand-drawn pictures of neurons in the brain.

Experts could also argue that a lie detector test (measuring blood pressure, pulse, respiration, and skin conductivity) is far removed from a machine monitoring brain activity. Furthermore, when the Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia decided on this lawsuit, qEEG didn’t exist. 

Applying the Frye standard, courts throughout the country have excluded qEEG evidence in the context of alleged brain trauma. For example, the Florida Supreme Court has formally noted that the relevant scientific community for purposes of Frye showed “qEEG is not a reliable method for determining brain damage and is not widely accepted by those who diagnose a neurologic disease or brain damage.” 

However, in a seminal paper covering the use of qEEG in cognitive disorders, the American Academy of Neurology (AAN) overall felt computer-assisted diagnosis using qEEG is an accurate, inexpensive, easy to handle tool that represents a valuable aid for diagnosing, evaluating, following up and predicting response to therapy — despite their opposition to the technology in this press. The paper also features other neurological associations validating the use of this technology.

The introduction of qEEg on death row was not that long ago

Only recently introduced, the technology was first deemed admissible in court during the death-penalty prosecution of Grady Nelson in 2010. Nelson stabbed his wife 61 times with a knife, then raped and stabbed her 11-year-old intellectually disabled daughter and her 9-year old son. The woman died, while her children survived. Documents state that Nelson’s wife found out he had been sexually abusing both children for many years and sought to keep them away from him.

Nelson’s defense argued that earlier brain damage had left him prone to impulsive behavior and violence. Prosecutors fought to strike the qEEG test from evidence, contending that the science was unproven and misused in this case.

“It was a lot of hocus pocus and bells and whistles, and it amounted to nothing,” the prosecutor on the case, Abbe Rifkin, stated. “When you look at the facts of the case, there was nothing impulsive about this murder.”

However, after hearing the testimony of Dr. Robert W. Thatcher, a multi-award-winning pioneer in qEEG analysis for the defense, Judge Hogan-Scola, found qEEG met the legal prerequisites for reliability. She based this on Frye and Daubert standards, two important cases involving the technology.

She allowed jurors to hear the qEEG report and even permitted Thatcher to present a computer slide show of Nelson’s brain with an explanation of the effects of frontal lobe damage at the sentencing phase. He testified that Nelson exhibited “sharp waves” in this region, typically seen in people with epilepsy – explaining that Grady doesn’t have epilepsy but does have a history of at least three TBIs, which could explain the abnormality seen in the EEG.  

Interpreting the data, Thatcher also told the court that the frontal lobes, located directly behind the forehead, regulate behavior. “When the frontal lobes are damaged, people have difficulty suppressing actions … and don’t understand the consequences of their actions,” Thatcher told ScienceInsider.

Jurors rejected the death penalty. Two jurors who agreed to be interviewed by a major national publication later categorically stated that the qEEG imaging and testimony influenced their decision.

“The moment this crime occurred, Grady had a broken brain,” his defense attorney, Terry Lenamon, said. “I think this is a huge step forward in explaining why people are broken—not excusing it. This is going to go a long way in mitigating death penalty sentences.”

On the other hand, Charles Epstein, a neurologist at Emory University in Atlanta, who testified for the prosecution, states that the qEEG data Thatcher presented flawed statistical analysis riddled with artifacts not naturally present in EEG imaging. Epstein adds that the sharp waves Thatcher reported may have been blips caused by the contraction of muscles in the head. “I treat people with head trauma all the time,” he says. “I never see this in people with head trauma.”

You can see Epstein’s point as it’s unclear whether these brain injuries occurred before or after Nelson brutally raped a 7-year old girl in 1991, after which he was granted probation and trained as a social worker.

All of which invokes the following questions: Firstly, do we need qEEG to state this person’s behavior is abnormal or that the legal system does not protect children and secondly, was the reaction of authorities in the 1991 case appropriate, let alone preventative?

As more mass shootings and other forms of extreme violence remain at relatively high levels in the United States, committed by younger and younger perpetrators flagged as loners and fantasists by the state mental healthcare systems they disappear into – it’s evident that sturdier preventative programs need to be implemented by governments worldwide. The worst has already occurred; our children are unprotected against dangerous predators and unaided when affected by their unstable and abusive environments, inappropriate social media, and TV.  

A potential beacon of hope, qEEG is already beginning to highlight the country’s broken socio-legal systems and the amount of work it will take to fix them. Attempting to humanize a diffracted court system that still disposes of the product of trauma and abuse like they’re nothing but waste, forcing the authorities to answer for their failings – and any science that can do this can’t be a bad thing.

Wisconsin stay-at-home order gets tossed by the state’s Supreme Court

While it can be frustrating, staying at home is actually one of the best ways to prevent the coronavirus from spreading further. That’s why many states across the US have imposed stay-at-home orders, which have been in place for quite a while now.

Credit Flickr

Following the evolution of the epidemic, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers had decided to extend the lockdown until May 26. Nevertheless, the state’s Supreme Court overturned the governor’s decision, claiming it was “unlawful” and “unenforceable.”

The court’s 4-3 ruling essentially reopened the state, lifting caps on the size of gatherings, allowing people to travel as they please, and allowing shuttered businesses to reopen, including bars and restaurants. Nevertheless, local governments can still impose their own health restrictions.

Governor Evers reacted angrily in a conference call, saying the state has been doing well in the fight against the coronavirus. He predicted the court ruling will lead more counties to impose their own restrictions, leading to a confusing patchwork of ordinances that will allow the infection to spread.

“Today, Republican legislators convinced four members of the state Supreme Court to throw the state into chaos,” Evers said. “They have provided no plan. There’s no question among anybody that people are going to get sick. Republicans own that chaos.”

The ruling comes after the legislature’s Republican leaders filed a lawsuit last month arguing the order would cost Wisconsin residents their jobs and hurt many companies and asserting that if it was left in place, “our State will be in shambles.” The suit was filed specifically against Department of Health officials.

Chief Justice Patience Roggensack wrote on behalf of the majority that health secretary Andrea Palm’s order amounted to an emergency rule that she doesn’t have the power to create on her own. “Rule-making exists precisely to ensure that kind of controlling, subjective judgment asserted by one unelected official, Palm, is not imposed in Wisconsin,” Roggensack wrote.

Meanwhile, Rebecca Dallet, one of the court’s liberal justices, dissented, saying the decision will “undoubtedly go down as one of the most blatant examples of judicial activism in this court’s history. And it will be Wisconsinites who pay the price.” Dallet also took aim at the potential delay of a rule-making process.

State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, both Republicans, said they’re confident businesses can safely reopen by following guidelines calling for workers to be allowed to stay home if they’re sick, making workers wash their hands, and implementing telework and social distancing.

Experts widely agree that states and localities will need robust testing and contact tracing programs in order to control the pandemic without strict social distancing measures, but many states — including Wisconsin — have reported shortages of critical supplies needed to run coronavirus tests.

Governor Evers encouraged people in his state to continue “to stay safer at home, practice social distancing, and limit travel, because folks, deadly viruses don’t wait around for politicians and bureaucrats to settle their differences or promulgate rules.” Nearly seven of 10 Wisconsin residents back the “safer at home” order, a survey this week showed.

Credit: Pixabay.

AI outperforms top corporate lawyers in accuracy — and is 100 times faster

A legal startup challenged 20 expert lawyers to test their skills against its AI-powered algorithm. The lawyers generally performed more poorly than the machine. The AI was found to have a level of accuracy on par with the very best lawyers that participated in the challenge — however, it performed the job 100 times faster.

Credit: Pixabay.

Credit: Pixabay.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is no longer a figment of our imagination — what’s more, it’s already pretty mainstream. A lot of people are already using voice assistants like Google Home or Amazon Alexa, whose suggestions are powered by artificial intelligence algorithms that tap into vasts amounts of data. Actually, if you’re using the internet, you’re already interacting with AI tech one way or another. Search results, social news feeds, Netflix recommendations — these are all delivered by AI.

As AI becomes more prevalent, researchers estimate that millions of jobs will become displaced in the coming years. The more repetitive the task, the more likely a robot overlord will take over. If you’re employed as a truck or taxi driver, teller, cashier or even as a cook, you run at risk of being sacked in favor of a machine. Some would think creative jobs like writing, painting or creating music are exempted from such trends because there’s the impression you need inherently human qualities to deliver — but that’s just wishful thinking. For instance, AIs can now write scripts for movies, novels, and even classical music like a human composer. Sure, they might not be as good as work produced by humans, but these are all proofs of concept, foretelling grander things to come.

Compared to music or creative writing, AI-algorithms for legal tasks sounds like a breeze. While much legal work requires an actual person — such as in court or when briefing clients — attorneys and legal staff also spend much of their workday analyzing complicated ‘legalese’. But it’s precisely because the language is very rigorous and well defined that a machine might be more fitting for some legal tasks.

Case in point, when LawGeex pitted 20 corporate lawyers against an AI algorithm, the humans were outperformed. The task that both humans and the machine had to complete involved reviewing risks contained in five non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). The participants were experienced lawyers working for important companies such as Goldman Sachs, Cisco and Alston & Bird.

Credit: LawGeex.

Credit: LawGeex.

The humans had an average accuracy score of 85%, with the top-performing lawyers achieving 94% and the worst performer scoring 67%. The AI matched the top-performing lawyers, recording 94% accuracy for the task. However, it took only 26 seconds to review all five documents, compared to 51 minutes for the speediest lawyer or 156 minutes for the slowest.

According to We Forum, about 23% of legal work can be safely automated, and LawGeex’s recent demonstration serves as a prime example of this. However, it’s anyone’s guess how far you can take this. For instance, some have proposed that an AI might make for the fairest judge. In 2016, an artificial intelligence system had correctly predicted the verdicts of cases heard at the European Court of Human Rights, with a 79% accuracy.

At this moment, researchers estimate that 71% of all hours spent on labor are performed by humans, and 29% by machines. In 2025, the ratio is expected to flip to 48% human labor and 52% machine.

By 2040 our computers will use more power than we can produce

The breathtaking speed at which our computers evolve is perfectly summarized in Moore’s Law — the idea that the sum of transistors in an integrated circuit doubles every two years. But this kind of exponential growth in computing power also means that our chipsets need more and more power to function — and by 2040 they will gobble up more electricity than the world can produce, scientists predict.

Image bia pixabay

The projection was originally contained in a report released last year by the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) but it has only recently made headlines as the group issued its final assessment on the semiconductor industry. The basic idea is that as computer chips become more powerful and incorporate more transistors, they’ll require more power to function unless efficiency can be improved.

Energy which we may not have. They predicted that unless we significantly change the design of our computers, by 2040 we won’t be able to power all of them. But there’s a limit to how much we can improve using our methods:

“Industry’s ability to follow Moore’s Law has led to smaller transistors but greater power density and associated thermal management issues,” the 2015 report explains.

“More transistors per chip mean more interconnects – leading-edge microprocessors can have several kilometres of total interconnect length. But as interconnects shrink they become more inefficient.”

So in the long run, SIA estimates that under current conditions “computing will not be sustainable by 2040, when the energy required for computing will exceed the estimated world’s energy production.”

Total energy used for computing.
Image credits SIA

This graph shows the problem. The power requirements of today’s systems — the benchmark line — are the orange line and total energy production is the yellow one. The point they meet at, predicted to be somewhere around 2030 or 2040, is where the problems start. Today, chip engineers stack ever-smaller transistors in three dimensions in order to improve performance and keep pace with Moore’s Law, but the SIA says that approach won’t work forever, given how much energy will be lost in future, progressively denser chips.

“Conventional approaches are running into physical limits. Reducing the ‘energy cost’ of managing data on-chip requires coordinated research in new materials, devices, and architectures,” the SIA states.

“This new technology and architecture needs to be several orders of magnitude more energy efficient than best current estimates for mainstream digital semiconductor technology if energy consumption is to be prevented from following an explosive growth curve.”

The roadmap report also warns that beyond 2020, it will become economically unviable to keep improving performance with simple scaling methods. Future improvements in computing power must come from areas not related to transistor count.

“That wall really started to crumble in 2005, and since that time we’ve been getting more transistors but they’re really not all that much better,” said computer engineer Thomas Conte from Georgia Tech for IEEE Spectrum.

“This isn’t saying this is the end of Moore’s Law. It’s stepping back and saying what really matters here – and what really matters here is computing.”

It's legal for an 18-year-old British astronaut to drink alcohol on the moon, but not for an American teenager of the same age.

Can you be prosecuted if you commit a crime on the moon?

It's legal for an 18-year-old British astronaut to drink alcohol on the moon, but not for an American teenager of the same age.

It’s legal for an 18-year-old British astronaut to drink alcohol on the moon, but not for an American teenager of the same age.

If you commit a crime in a country, you’ll be prosecuted by the laws of the said country. One gray area that had to be settled by law makers was prosecution in territories that no one owned. If you dock a ship in a port in Miami, you will be held liable under civil law in the United States. In the high seas or international waters which start 12 to 24 miles from the coast, that’s another story. A ship flies the flag of the country where it’s registered, and, in general, the laws onboard a ship are the laws of that country.  So, a Liberia-registered cruise ship that’s 25 miles off the coast of California isn’t subject to U.S. law; it’s subject to Liberian law. If you renounce your citizenship, build your own boat and sail to high seas, then you’re technically a pirate. This certainly doesn’t mean that you’re allowed to do anything. On the contrary, you’re at the whim of whomever you come across: you could be killed and the killer wouldn’t be prosecuted (if he kills you in your pirate ship).

As technology advances, law and policy makers had to adapt. When ships were invented, laws were made to govern their passage. Same with aircraft (airspace law) and later space. Space law is a very touchy subject nowadays, because the first space laws drafted in the Outer Space Treaty (1967) did not take into account modern opportunities: mining asteroids and the moon or colonizing other planets. Things are already getting tensed after last year the U.S. Congress passed a ridiculous law that says U.S. citizens are now entitled to any resources they mine off the moon, asteroid or any celestial body outside Earth.

With this in mind, some might think that committing what most people (and the law) regard as crimes here on Earth is of no legal repercussion on the moon or outer space. Wrong! The principle of ‘extraterritorial jurisdiction’ applies, where someone is bound by the laws of the country from which they originate if they are not presently in another country (no man’s land). So, if you’re an 18-year-old Brit having a pint on the moon it’s perfectly fine and legal, but not if you’re an U.S. citizen of the same age — that would be illegal. Aboard a space ship or the International Space Station, the same laws as those governing international waters mentioned earlier apply. Confusing? Check out this entertaining video below produced by Wendover Productions, which explains it all quite illustrative.


Appointed judges outperform elected ones


Princeton University political scientists have found as part of a recent study looking to assess the performance of state supreme court justices that appointed justices generally bring a higher quality of information to the decision-making process, are less biased and are generally less prone to error as elected justices.

For their study,  Matias Iaryczower, an assistant professor of politics at Princeton, along with colleagues, analyzed some 6,000 state supreme court rulings nationwide between 1995 and 1998. The data gathered from this time frame was then subjected to a theoretical model, which enabled them to reach their conclusion that appointed justices are typically better at their jobs than elected ones.

“Judges may be appointed to state supreme courts, elected in competitive elections or face retention elections. We wanted to see whether these selection methods can be associated with differences in the attributes of the judges themselves and with differences in the ways these judges interact with each other in the court,”  said Iaryczower.

According to the researchers the information quality for justices who don’t face voters is on average 33 percent larger than that of justices who face retention elections at some point after being appointed and 39 percent larger than that of justices who are elected. Now these numbers might seem huge, but remember these are percentages relative to a certain reference point. The relative error justices make during their court rulings is a whole less discrepant.  Justices appointed for life and appointed justices with political reappointment on average have a probability of reaching an incorrect decision of 0.1 percent, while  justices who face retention elections  reach 0.5 percent and justices who are elected 0.3 percent.

What does information quality means for a supreme court justice , however?

“We can think of each judge as endowed with two key components for decision-making, which can vary depending on the characteristics of the case and the individual justice,” Iaryczower said. “The first is a bias parameter, representing the justice’s individual preferences (coming from ideology, a legal position, personal experiences, etc). The second is a parameter measuring the quality of the justice’s information: her ability to go from the facts of the case to a correct decision under the law.”

The present research is part of a large project Iaryczower and colleagues are currently pursuing to establish the level of bias in the current US system of justice – a system that many have labeled as being incredibly biased. To be more exact, they’re looking at the workings of deliberations in appeals courts and the impact of campaign contributions to decision-making in courts.

“A longstanding question in economics and political sciences involves whether public officials should be elected or appointed. A theoretical literature has argued that elections may serve to discipline public officials but may also provide incentives for officials to inappropriately pander to shifts in public opinion,” said Brian Knight,  a professor of economics at Brown University and co-editor of the paper. “The research by Iaryczower, Lewis and Shum provides one of the first efforts to quantify these advantages and disadvantages of elections.”

A few years ago, I wrote a post on how biased justice can be. Then, a study looked at a few hundred parole appeal cases, albeit in Israel, and found that the presiding judges had an extremely different proportion of rulings during a day. In the beginning of the day the chance a prisoner had of a parole being granted was around 65%, only to plummet to nearly 0% towards mid-day – just before lunch-break!

Iaryczower’s findings were reported in the Journal of Public Economics.

source: Princeton University/ image source: PBS

Shorties: Shanghai introduces one-dog policy

Reminiscent of the infamous one-child policy introduced in China in 1978, which limited urban Chinese families togiving birth to a maximum of one child, as a means of slowing down the alarming overpopulation trend, the country’s biggest city Shanghai has introduced a similar policy – this time for pets.

There are an estimated 800,000 dogs in Shanghai, a city numbering 23 million people, and only about 140,000 of the animals have been registered. The policy has been introduced as a measure of controlling the extremely numerous canine population in the city, as well as means of prevening rabies outbrakes.

Part of the policy, there is also a bill that stat that all dogs in the city must also receive rabies vaccinations. Dog owners who have not vaccinated their pets will face a fine of 1000 yuan ($150) if caught, also unregistered dogs will be declared illegal, which will give authorities the right to remove them from their owners.  The new law also places fines of 500 to 2,000 yuan on owners who abuse or abandon their dogs.

Last year alone, more than 140,000 people living in Shanghai reported to the police that they have been bitten by an unlicensed dog. The new regulation, which was announced in February, but only came into effect yesterday, also bans dogs bigger than 1 metre from the centre of the city and some particular races which are considered dangerous completely from the city – the includes bulldogs and pit bulls.

According to Ding Wei, director of the policy department of the Shanghai People’s Congress, the law is made to protect the interests of dog owners and non-dog owners alike.

“We are not trying to reduce the number of dogs but we encourage the citizens to be responsible for their dogs, which will benefit society,” Ding told the Global Times.

Justice served cold before lunch time: hungry judges less likely to grant parole

Law is a highly demanding field, in which its practitioners are required to have an objective and stoic approach at all times, but a recently published very interesting study shows that court judges can be just as biased as any of us and their rulings, however rational we’d love them to be, are influenced by moods and swings, and … lunch breaks.

Shai Denzeger from Ben Gurion University of the Negev studied 1,112 parole board hearings in Israeli prisons, over a ten month period, to see weather there’s a correlation between the proportion of favorable/negative parole hearings and the order in which they’re presented to the judge during the day. The results of the study can be observed in the graph below which features on the vertical axis the proportion of cases where the judges granted parole, while on the horizontal axis the order in which the cases were heard during the day is shown  – the dotted lines represents the moments of the day in which the judges went for their snack breaks.

If some of you might have been amused at the beginning of the article, then there’s a good chance you’re pretty amazed right now, maybe even scared. Yes, in the beginning of the day the chance a prizoner has of a parole being granted is around 65%, only to plummet to nearly 0% towards mid-day!

The rulings researched in the study were made by eight Jewish-Israeli judges, each with an average of 22 years of judging behind them. Their verdicts represented 40% of all parole requests in the country during the ten months. Every day, each judge considers between 14 and 35 cases, spending around 6 minutes on each decision. They take two food breaks that divide their day into three sessions. All of these details, from the decision to the times of the breaks, are duly recorded.

Jonathan Levav, who led the study, says, “There are no checks about the judges’ decisions because no one has ever documented this tendency before.  Needless to say, I would expect there to be something put into place after this.”

Denzeger’s explination is a simple one: repetitive action leads to intense mental resources depletion and fatigue, which leads to something called “choice overload”. When this happens, basically, we generally tend to choose the default option, in this case the default option is “deny parole”.

Nita Farahany, a professor of law at Vanderbilt University, says, “To me, this study underscores that decision-making is complex and does not occur in a theoretical or formalistic vacuum.” She says that similar studies have found that people from medical residents to air force pilots make more errors when they go for long periods without rest.

“Such studies have helped inform policy changes designed to minimize human errors that arise from lack of sleep, and mental and physical exhaustion,” Farahany says. “That legal decision-makers might also be impacted by mental or physical exhaustion should be unsurprising. Improvements in medicine, military combat, and other critical decision-making contexts have required that attention be paid to the effects of exhaustion. Likewise, improvements in the justice system may likewise require that society acknowledge the effects of biological contributions to legal decision-making.”

Study published in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences.