Recent Cases in Law and Neuroscience

Center for Law, Brain & Behavior
12 min readOct 14, 2020

Curated by the Center for Law, Brain & Behavior and the Shen Neurolaw Lab with support from the Dana Foundation

Image Source: Discover Magazine

This post is 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.

In this edition — Selected neurolaw cases from July 2020-September 2020:

●Defendant receives death penalty despite diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia

●WWE wrestlers’ concussion class action lawsuit is thrown out by U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals

●Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court considers extending juvenile constitutional protections to young adults 18 and older

● Defendant receives death penalty despite diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia

●WWE wrestlers’ concussion class action lawsuit is thrown out by U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals

●5th Circuit denies defendant’s petition for ineffective assistance of counsel, stating that the evidence her counsel omitted that pointed to “significant mental and cognitive impairments” was “merely cumulative”

● Defendant, 19 years old at the time he committed the crimes for which he was convicted of, is executed despite appeals that cited possible brain damage

●Intellectually disabled man is denied Miller hearing by Illinois Supreme Court

●And more . . . see our website for more cases.

Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Addresses Constitutionality of Sentencing Young Adults to LWOP

Above: Shelton Mattis (left) and Nyasani Watt (right) during their 2013 trial — Image source: The Boston Globe

On June 4, 2020, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, which had previously refused to extend to those age 18 and above its earlier holding preventing the imposition of life sentences for juveniles, ruled that “[a]s research in this area has progressed [since its 2013 holding] … it likely is time for us to revisit the boundary between defendants who are seventeen years old and thus shielded from the most severe sentence of life without the possibility of parole, and those who are eighteen years old and therefore exposed to it.” The court remanded for an evidentiary hearing, however, because to revisit the age 18 boundary the court must have “an updated record reflecting the latest advances in scientific research on adolescent brain development and its impact on behavior.”

The case at issue involved co-defendants Sheldon Mattis and Nyasani Watt, who in 2013 were both convicted of first-degree murder, aggravated assault and battery, and related offenses after shooting and killing a 16-year-old and injuring one other in Dorchester, Massachusetts in 2011. Watt was 17-years-old at the time of offense and Mattis was 18. Watt received a life sentence with the possibility of parole after 15 years, and Mattis received a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole. Both defendants filed an appeal; Mattis, who had turned 18 eight months before he committed the crime, contended that a life sentence without the possibility of parole is “unconstitutional for any individual under the age of twenty-two” due to the fact that emerging brain science has cited that “[certain] brain functions are not likely to be fully matured until around age twenty-two.”

Citation: Commonwealth v. Watt, 484 Mass. 742 (2020)

Execution Proceeds Despite Evidence Citing Alzheimer’s disease, Schizophrenia, and Brain Damage

Above: Wesley Ira Purkey (center) after his 1998 arrest — Image Source: The New York Times

On July 16, 2020, Wesley Ira Purkey, aged 68 and diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia, was put to death by lethal injection in Terre Haute, Indiana. On July 2, the U.S. Court of Appeals granted Purkey a stay of execution, stating that “the failure of trial counsel to conduct a proper mitigation analysis” is “worthy of further exploration.” However, the government filed a motion to the U.S. Supreme Court seeking to vacate Purkey’s stay of execution on the grounds that despite Purkey’s “history of mental illness,” such evidence ‘does not demonstrate incompetency under Ford.’” The U.S. Supreme Court granted the governments’ request and vacated Purkey’s stay of execution.

Purkey offered much medical and scientific evidence for the court to consider. In 2003, Wesley Ira Purkey was convicted of the kidnapping, rape, and murder of a sixteen-year-old girl in Kansas City, Kansas and was sentenced to death. During the guilt phase of Purkey’s trial in 2003, expert witnesses testified that Purkey suffered from substantial organic brain damage sustained during two different car crashes that “resulted in diminished mental capacity.” Brain imaging — specifically positron emission tomography and magnetic resonance imaging– was performed on Purkey’s brain and revealed “brain abnormalities.”

In Purkey’s most recent appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals in June 2020, he offered new evidence of his 2019 diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia and additionally cited evidence from a recent evaluation by a forensic psychiatrist who contended that Purkey’s cognitive state has deteriorated during his time in prison that to the extent that he “lack[ed] a rational understanding of the basis of his execution.” Purkey argued that because of his deteriorated mental state, his execution would be unconstitutional due to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Ford which held that the Eighth Amendment bars the execution of a person who “as of the planned time for death, is ‘insane.’” Purkey also argued that he received ineffective assistance of counsel (which would be in violation of the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution) due to the fact that during the sentencing portion of his trial, the jury left the “findings on mitigating factors” section blank, with little contestation from his defense counsel. Purkey argued that the jury should have considered his brain abnormalities during his sentencing.

Citation: Purkey v. United States, №19–3318 (7th Cir. 2020)

WWE Wrestlers’ Concussion Class Action Lawsuit is Dismissed in Court

Image Source: Vice

On September 9, 2020 a class action, brought by over 50 former World Wrestling Entertainment (“WWE”) wrestlers, was dismissed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit for failure to meet the statute of limitations. In the case, the plaintiffs alleged that “they are either suffering from symptoms of permanent degenerative neurological conditions resulting from traumatic brain injuries sustained during their employment as wrestlers for WWE or are at increased risk of developing such conditions.” They claim that WWE failed to “properly educate, prevent, diagnose and treat [the athletes] for concussions,” and additionally that WWE “had knowledge of evidence suggesting a link between repeated head trauma that could be sustained during WWE events and permanent degenerative neurological conditions such as CTE” but that WWE either concealed the evidence or “negligently denied that [the evidence] existed.” More so, because the WWE classifies its wrestlers as independent contractors instead of employees, the plaintiffs argue that they were “deprived of regulatory oversight that could have put them on notice of their injuries and protected them from compounding damage.”

In support of their claims, the plaintiff class offered various pieces of evidence: one plaintiff stated that he and other wrestlers often lost consciousness during WWE matches due to continuous blows to the head — he alleges that during televised matched they were “often hit with chairs, turnbuckles, and other wrestlers’ bodies.” Another plaintiff stated that when a wrestler sustained a head injury, “there [were] never any medical evaluations” and that wrestlers were frequently told by WWE personnel to just “shake off” their head injuries. Since the date that the lawsuit was filed, six of the defendants have died and were diagnosed with CTE after their deaths.

The cases were originally filed in Connecticut, but in 2018 the district judge ruled in favor of WWE, stating that because complaints were filed after the Connecticut statute of limitations expired, the wrestlers were not eligible for compensation.

Citation: Haynes v. World Wrestling Entm’t, Inc., №18–3278, 2020 WL 5406410 (2d Cir. Sept. 9, 2020)

Court Orders New Parole Hearing for Defendant in Light of Cognitive Impairments

On July 23, 2020, the 1st District Court of Appeal in California ruled that Andrew Dave Shelton should receive a new parole suitability hearing. Shelton is currently serving a life sentence for a murder that he committed in 1991 in Fairfield, California when he was 37 years old. Shelton, now 64, has been denied parole eight times, most recently in 2018. In July 2020, Shelton filed a writ of habeas corpus to the California Court of Appeals, arguing that the Board of Parole Hearings had failed to properly consider evidence of his purported brain damage.

A year prior to committing the murder, during his time serving in the U.S. military, Shelton suffered a traumatic brain injury after which “he reported significant memory difficulties, had problems with getting lost, and suffered slurred speech.” During a 2016 evaluation, a psychologist diagnosed Shelton with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and “Major Neurocognitive Disorder, Mild” and additionally stated that his neurocognitive disorders “may be following a progressive course toward moderate levels of impairment . . . [which] could lead to the future development of problems with anterograde memory and executive functioning.”

While multiple Comprehensive Risk Assessments concluded that Shelton presented a low risk of violence to society, the board denied granting Shelton parole in both 2016 and 2018 on the grounds that Shelton was unable to account the details of his crime in a logical manner, stating that he lacked both “credibility and insight” towards his crime. They determined that “Shelton’s lack of insight left him at risk for future violence if faced with similar triggering circumstances.”

The psychologist who evaluated Shelton, however, argued that because of the likely progressive nature of his memory loss, “it is unlikely that his disorder will ever allow him to give a coherent narrative about his motivations at the time of the crime.” More so, the psychologist posited that the “discrepant information about [Shelton’s] adult life across evaluations” was “likely due to confusion and memory loss secondary to multiple traumatic brain injuries.”

In its opinion, the California Court of Appeals stated that “the present case is particularly problematic because the record suggests Shelton’s cognitive condition will never allow him to achieve and demonstrate the kind of insight the panels have been demanding.” Thus, the Court sided with Shelton and remanded his case “for a new parole suitability hearing consistent with due process of law.”

Citation: In re Andrew Dave Shelton on Habeas Corpus, 2020 CA App. (1st)

5th Circuit Denies Petition for Ineffective Assistance of Counsel Based on Failure to Present Evidence of Brain Damage in Death Penalty Case

Above: Erica Sheppard, pictured in 1995, the year she was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death — Image Source: My Crime Library

On July 22, 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit denied Erica Sheppard’s petition for relief, in which Sheppard argued for ineffective assistance of counsel. Defendant Erica Sheppard was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death in Texas in 1995. She was 19 years old at the time she committed her crimes, and 21 years old when she was sentenced to death. Sheppard claimed ineffective assistance of counsel on the grounds that her attorney failed to present certain mitigating evidence to the jury during the sentencing phase of her trial, specifically evidence relating to Shepard’s “‘significant mental and psychological impairments.’” While her counsel did reveal to the jury that Sheppard “experienced depression and mood swings and heard voices in her head,” Sheppard argued that her counsel failed to disclose essential information uncovered in her medical evaluations; after extensive psychiatric evaluation, a psychiatrist diagnosed Sheppard with “severe depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, dissociative disorder” and “organic brain dysfunction.”

The court rejected Sheppard’s petition, stating that “Sheppard’s proposed mitigation evidence [was] merely cumulative.” In the dissenting opinion, Judge Carolyn Dineen King wrote that “Erica Sheppard was sentenced to death by a jury that did not know that she has brain damage and the cognitive ability of a fourteen-year-old” and that “unlike the majority, [she] cannot shrug off these important matters as mere cumulative evidence.”

Additionally, after an 18 hour neuropsychological evaluation, a psychologist concluded that “[Sheppard] had a mental-age equivalence of a fourteen-year-old” and stated that “when confronted with stressful situations, Sheppard ‘would be vulnerable . . . to the influence of others’ and would likely ‘respond[] in a non-thinking, automaton-like way rather than as a thinking and reasoning adult.’” Sheppard claimed that this evidence should have been presented to the jury, arguing that it pertains to her “moral culpability.”

Citation: Sheppard v. Davis, №18–70011 (5th Cir. 2020)

Defendant is Executed Despite Expert Testimony Citing Possible Brain Damage

Above: Christopher Andre Vialva during his imprisonment at the United States Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana — Image Source: The New York Times

Christopher Vialva was executed on September 24, 2020 in Terre Haute, Indiana, despite appeals that included evidence of possible brain damage. In July 2000, Christopher Vialva, 19 years old at the time of offenses, was convicted of capital murder in Killeen, Texas and sentenced to death. Since his conviction and sentencing, Vialva has filed multiple appeals on various grounds, one of which being that his sentence violates the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution due to his age. His counsel argued during trial that “although he was 19-years-old at the time of the offense, he was ‘operating at a much lower mental age[.]’” Vialva also contends that his counsel was ineffective during the punishment phase of the trial due to the fact that they failed to present certain mitigating evidence, specifically “details of Vialva’s turbulent upbringing . . . his symptoms of bipolar disorder . . . and his history of illness and injury, including Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and depression,” as well as expert opinion testimony that “Vialva suffered from mild physical abnormalities and possible brain damage and had experienced a number of emotionally damaging events.”

In regard to his Eighth Amendment claim, the United State Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in September, 2018, ruled that there is no legal basis to determine that his sentencing was unconstitutional; while Roper v. Simmons ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional for a person under the age of 18, Vialva was 19 at the time he committed his crime. In regard to his claim of ineffective counsel, the court ruled that “much of the mitigating evidence was actually presented to the jury through the testimony of Vialva’s friends and family and Dr. Cunningham” and that “Vialva failed to show the materiality of the evidence or how it would have fortified the defense beyond already available impeachment evidence.”

The federal government scheduled his execution date for September 24, 2020. On September 18, 2020, Vialva filed an appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit for a stay of execution, which was denied on procedural grounds.

Citation: Vialva v. Watson, №20–2710 (7th Cir. 2020)

Intellectually Disabled Man Denied Miller hearing by Illinois Supreme Court

On June 4, 2020, the Illinois Supreme Court rejected the argument of William Coty that his life sentence was unconstitutional due to his intellectual disability. Coty, 46 at the time of his offense, was convicted of predatory criminal sexual assault of a child, criminal sexual assault and aggravated criminal sexual assault and sentenced to a natural life sentence due to a prior sexual assault conviction. The defendant argued that his statutory mandated life sentence due to a previous sexual assault conviction was a violation of the proportionate penalties clause of the Illinois Constitution, noting that his intellectual disability placed him at a similar developmental stage as an adolescent. In light of the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Miller, Coty’s counsel argued that a mandatory sentencing scheme that didn’t allow for evaluation of the attendant characteristics of intellectual disability in sentencing was a facial constitutional violation. The Illinois Supreme Court ultimately rejected Coty’s arguments and held that the mandatory sentencing scheme was appropriate and the sentence was affirmed.

With regards to the scientific evidence, the court noted: “The enhanced prospect that, as the years go by and neurological development occurs, deficiencies will be reformed — is not a prospect that applies to this intellectually disabled defendant, who was 46 years old when he committed this, his second sexual offense against a child. The rehabilitative prospects of youth do not figure into the sentencing calculus for him.”

Citation: People v. Coty, 2020 IL 123972

Acknowledgment: This case update project is made possible through the support of the Dana Foundation. The Dana Foundation is a private philanthropic organization dedicated to advancing understanding about the brain in health and disease through research grants and public outreach. The Foundation funds and coordinates programs on a range of brain and brain health topics for diverse audiences, including the globally successful Brain Awareness Week campaign. Its website,, offers free articles, fact sheets, and lesson plans about brain function and health, all reviewed and approved by neuroscientists.