How Will Brain Science Affect The Tsarnaev Trial?

In this courtroom sketch, Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is depicted sitting in federal court in Boston. (AP/Jane Flavell Collins)

In this courtroom sketch, Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is depicted sitting in federal court in Boston. (Jane Flavell Collins/AP)

Jury selection continues for the second week in the trial of accused Boston Marathon bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Later this week, the judge, prosecutors and defense attorneys are expected to question prospective jurors. They will ask about jurors’ backgrounds, their feelings about the death penalty and whether they already have an opinion about Tsarnaev.

The trial is expected to take four months, and legal experts are already looking at what possible arguments the defense may make to avoid conviction, and — if convicted — the death penalty. Some say brain science is likely to play a role in the trial, because courts are increasingly looking at what neuroscience tells us about adolescence and the developing brain.


Judith Edersheim, forensic psychiatrist and co-director of the Center for Law, Brain and Behavior at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Laurence Steinberg, professor of psychology at Temple University and author of “Age of Opportunity: Lessons From the New Science of Adolescence.” He tweets @ldsteinberg.


CommonHealth: Could Tsarnaev Argue, ‘My Immature, Pot-Impaired Brain Made Me Do It’?

  • “One thing, I believe, is certain: If this case proceeds to the sentencing phase, the black box everyone will be talking about will be the cranium, and how the brain drives behavior will be the central story.”

The Marshall Project: The Teenage Brain Of The Boston Bomber

  • “(C)ould the new neuroscience of adolescence — including brain imaging that suggests young adults remain especially susceptible to peer influence well into their twenties — be used as mitigating evidence, potentially sparing him the death penalty?”

Here & Now: The New Science Of Adolescence

  • “The brain during adolescence is very malleable or very plastic. What that means is that the brain has a heightened capacity to change in response to experience. That cuts both ways: on the one hand it means that the brain is especially susceptible to toxic experiences that can harm it, but on the other hand it means that the brain is also susceptible to positive influences that can promote growth.”

NPR: Plumbing The Mysteries Of The Teenage Brain

  • “As we know, experience can play a very important role in shaping the brain. Not only in the present but with respect to how kids are going to learn in the future. And I think that science suggests that it’s important for kids to be challenged and exposed to novelty in order to facilitate healthy development of brain systems that are important for things like self-regulation.”

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