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Thursday, April 28, 2022

The State of Florida v. Kelvin Lee Coleman Jr.: the implications of neuroscience in the courtroom through a case study

P. Loizidou, R. E. Wieczorek-Fynn, & J. C. Wu
Psychology, Crime & Law 
Published online: 17 Mar 2022


Neuroscience can provide evidence in some cases of legal matters, despite its tenuous nature. Among others, arguing for diminished capacity, insanity, or pleading for mitigation is the most frequent use of neurological evidence in the courtroom. While there is a plethora of studies discussing the moral and legal matters of the practice, there is a lack of studies examining specific cases and the subsequent applications of brain knowledge. This study details the capital punishment trial of Kelvin Lee Coleman Jr., charged in 2013 with double murder in Tampa, Florida, to illustrate the extent that expert opinions – based on neuroimaging, neurological, and neuropsychiatric examinations – had an impact on the court’s decisions. The defendant was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. According to the comments of the trial’s jury, the most influential reason for not sentencing the defendant to death is the fact that during the incident was that he was under extreme mental and emotional disturbance. Other reasons were evidence of brain abnormalities resulting from neurological insult, fetal alcohol syndrome, and orbitofrontal syndrome contributing to severely abnormal behavior and lack of impulse control.


While this study addresses a single case, similar cases have in the past reached similar rulings. The evasion of death sentences has been especially common after the Hurst v. State decision requiring an anonymous jury vote before sentencing defendants to death. One such case is the State of Florida v. Luis Toledo which took place in 2017. The defendant was not sent to death despite killing his wife and her two children because of the mitigation claims of neurological illness and epilepsy. Similarly, in the case of State of Florida v. Byron Burch in 2015, first-degree murder and burglary charged to a defendant with a lengthy criminal record, did not result in a death sentence due to mitigating evidence of brain damage and presumptive chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Both cases had PET neuroimaging analyzed by one of the coauthors (JCW). After quantitative electroencephalography was inadmissible to the court, the defense attorney presented PET scans to claim brain damage that hindered impulse control. The jurors decided on a sentence to life in prison without parole which the judge ultimately decided upon.

While evidence on the existence of brain damage seems to suffice in some cases for a sentence to life in prison without parole, it is of interest to examine further the link between brain damage and criminality. This is linked to two questions: First, how common is brain damage among criminals, and second, how much does brain damage impact the likeliness of criminality. Several studies have looked at the prevalence of brain damage and psychiatric disorders among incarcerated individuals. Mental illness is significantly over-represented in death-row samples relative to the general population (Cunningham & Vigen, 2002). TBI is particularly prevalent among criminals, with one study reporting that 82% of the 164 incarcerated individuals interviewed have sustained a TBI, 79% have sustained a TBI with loss of consciousness, and 43% have sustained more than four or more TBIs (Schofield et al., 2006). Other psychiatric conditions like depression, mania, and schizophrenia have reportedly significantly higher prevalence rates among general samples of individuals from jails and specific samples of homicide charged individuals as compared to the rest of the population (Teplin, 1990; Wallace et al., 1998). It is of interest to see that mental disorders are usually accompanied by substance abuse and in many cases substance, especially alcohol abuse was confounded with associations between TBI and criminal offense (Wallace et al., 1998).