Brain-injury scientists play big role in death penalty cases – News – Daily Commercial

TAVARES – Courtrooms still have the traditional players — defense attorneys, prosecutor, defendant and judge — but brain-injury scientists have muscled their way onto witness stands in death penalty cases in a big way.

“It’s not an excuse for the crime but rather an explanation for how that person got into the position that he did,“ said John Spivey, Executive Assistant Public Defender.

Florida doesn’t have a diminished capacity defense for the guilt phase. It’s part of the all-important penalty phase.

The Florida Supreme Court is demanding more scientific inquiry or else the case may be overturned. But it is running up the costs of the already expensive death penalty cases and causing a backup on dockets — sometimes for years.

The case of Krystopher Laws, for example, who along with Joshua McClellan allegedly killed 92-year-old Rubye James of Leesburg and buried her in a shallow grave, is not expected to go to trial until 2019.

Lake County does a better job of scheduling than other counties. Marion is the busiest. Some cases may not go to trial for six years, prosecutors say.

The first thing defense attorneys do is to hire a mitigation specialist, who interviews family members, and examines school and military records. Investigators wonder, did he suffer any head injuries while playing football?

A neuropsychologist then administers a battery of tests to determine such things as reasoning skills and impulse control. That person might recommend a brain scan.

“If you get a neuropsychologist who recommends a pet scan and if you don’t do it, number one you’re a boob,” Spivey said. “Number two, you’re going to be reversed [on appeal].”

“I’m investigating people like a cop,” Spivey said.

If the neuropsychologist recommends a pet scan, Spivey hires a doctor to write an order.

A pet scan shows how a brain is working. It uses radioactive materials to present color…

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