Can a traumatic brain injury increase the odds that an individual will commit a crime? And if the answer is yes, should such an injury factor into how we judge people accused of crimes?
Those questions occurred to me when I read about the latest twist in the case of Aaron Hernandez, a former tight end for the New England Patriots, who had been convicted of murdering Odin Lloyd, a semi-professional football player who had been dating the sister of Hernandez’s fiancee. While on trial for Lloyd’s murder, Hernandez was charged with shooting and killing two other men, but was acquitted in 2017. Days after that he killed himself in his prison cell.
A team of Boston University researchers was asked to examine Hernandez’s brain. They reported that he suffered the most severe case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy — a progressive degenerative brain disease often seen in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma — they had ever seen in a person his age. While experts are using their customary scientific caution in not connecting Hernandez’s brain pathology to his crime, such severe injuries would have caused poor judgment and impulse control, two hallmarks of the bad behavior that landed Hernandez in prison for life.