Defendant’s Death Sentence Upheld After Ohio Supreme Court Questions Validity of Conclusions Drawn From Brain Scans
Recent Cases in Law and Neuroscience, Curated by the Center for Law, Brain & Behavior and the Shen Neurolaw Lab with support from the Dana Foundation
On August 18, 2020, the Ohio Supreme Court upheld defendant Anthony Kirkland’s death sentence after the court ruled that despite Kirkland’s primary mitigating factors cited in his appeal — which included evidence of brain damage and trauma — the aggravating circumstances outweighed the mitigating factors of his case.
Kirkland was convicted of murdering two teenaged girls and two other women between 2006 and 2009 in Cincinnati, Ohio and was sentenced to death for his crimes. Kirkland was 37 years old at the time he committed the first murder. Kirkland, now 52 years old, appealed his sentence most recently to the Supreme Court of Ohio on 11 different grounds, one of which was that the mitigating factors in his case — specifically those related to his cognitive state and his multiple traumatic brain injuries– outweighed the aggravating factors, and that because of these mitigating factors, his death sentence should be reduced to sentences of life without parole.
One main focus of Kirkland’s mitigating evidence was his traumatic brain injuries. Kirkland testified that he suffered multiple brain injuries as a result of concussions as a child, a bicycle accident, a workplace accident “following which he reported memory loss and numbness in his extremities, and an automobile accident. A doctor who evaluated Kirkland preformed three brain scans on him — a PET scan, MRI quantitative volumetric scan, and an MRI diffusion tensor imaging (“DTI”) scan — and found abnormalities in Kirkland’s brain, particularly in his frontal lobe and amygdala, that he testified to be “consistent with multiple head traumas.” In court, the doctor testified that such injuries, specifically injuries to one’s frontal-lobe, can cause “significant alteration in [one’s] ability to regulate aggression,’ which can affect judgment and impulse control.”
A second focus of Kirkland’s mitigation evidence was the of abuse and neglect that Kirkland suffered as a child. A clinical psychologist diagnosed Kirkland with PTSD with dissociation and additionally testified that because stress “enlarges the amygdala while weakening its connection to the prefrontal cortex,” the “threat-response system can become overactive” in people who were abused as children, causing people to perceive threats that aren’t actually there; because one of Kirkland’s victims “allegedly produced a knife during their altercation,” the forensic psychologist testified that “these actions could have triggered a ‘survival response’ from Kirkland, and that after that, his acts would have been ‘survival actions, not thinking actions.’” Additionally, the psychologist testified that frontal-lobe damage combined with “significant abuse and neglect” in childhood can further exacerbate an individuals’ “inability to regulate aggression” especially when that individual is in an “uncontrolled, unmanaged environment.”
However, the court ultimately rejected Kirkland’s appeal on multiple different grounds. First, they noted that there were flaws in both of Kirkland’s primary mitigating factors that were initially presented to the court, particularly having to do with Kirkland’s doctors’ “theories and diagnostic methods”: according to a second doctor, who was called by the state to testify, “PET scanning is not accepted as a tool for diagnosing traumatic brain injury.” Additionally, the court was concerned with the reliability of the testimony from the forensic psychologist due to the fact that her report relied primarily on Kirkland’s own account of his childhood. The court stated that “many of Kirkland’s childhood memories lacked specificity, and [the doctor] admitted on cross-examination that this lack of specificity could raise questions about their credibility.” Ultimately, because of the nature of Kirkland’s crimes and the concerns the court had with his primary mitigating evidence, the court ruled that “aggravating circumstances outweigh the mitigating factors beyond a reasonable doubt,” and on August 18, 2020, the Ohio Supreme Court upheld Kirkland’s sentence.
Citation: State v. Kirkland, No. 2018–1265, 2020 WL 4760342 (Ohio 2020).
Key Words: death sentence, mitigating evidence, brain injury, brain abnormalities, frontal lobe, amygdala, neuroimaging, PET, MRI, DTI, Ohio
This post is 15th post as part of an ongoing Center for Law, Brain & Behavior (CLBB) series tracking the latest developments in law and neuroscience cases. To see previous posts about recent cases, see the full case archive on the CLBB website. To see updates on legal scholarship, see the Neurolaw News, hosted by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience. This project is made possible through support of the Dana Foundation.