The Marshall Project

A Dangerous Brain

Can neuroscience predict how likely someone is to commit another crime?

In 1978, Thomas Barefoot was convicted of killing a police officer in Texas. During the sentencing phase of his trial, the prosecution called two psychiatrists to testify about Barefoot’s “future dangerousness,” a capital-sentencing requirement that asked the jury to determine if the defendant posed a threat to society.

The psychiatrists declared Barefoot a “criminal psychopath,” and warned that whether he was inside or outside a prison, there was a “one hundred percent and absolute chance” that he would commit future acts of violence that would “constitute a continuing threat to society.” Informed by these clinical predictions, the jury sentenced Barefoot to death.

Although such psychiatric forecasting is less common now in capital cases, a battery of risk assessment tools has since been

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