Normally, I don’t read true crime books, but recently two crossed my desk that I could not pass up. Both books pulled me in with their strong narrative and meticulous research.
Today, I am focusing on one of those books.
Chicago journalist Kevin Davis’ The Brain Defense: Murder in Manhattan and the Dawn of Neuroscience in America's Courtrooms (Penguin Press) combines true crime, brain science, and courtroom drama in a well-researched book.
What makes Davis’ book so absorbing is it takes the reader on journey that shows us how neuroscience intersected with criminal justice, setting a new standard in courtrooms and the law.
Davis’ story starts with the 1991 death of Barbara Weinstein, whose body fell from a 12th-story apartment on Manhattan’s East 72nd Street. The 56-year-old woman’s husband, Herbert, soon confessed to the police that he had hit his wife and then strangled her after an argument. He threw her body out of the apartment window to make her death appear to be a suicide.
Nothing in the case added up. The 65-year-old Herbert Weinstein was a quiet retired advertising executive. He didn’t have a criminal record, no history of violent behavior. He apparently didn’t even have a temper.
What made him snap?
After he was arrested, an MRI revealed a cyst the size of an orange on his brain’s frontal lobe. That’s the part of the brain that governs judgment and impulse control.
Could Weinstein’s brain have been broken, causing him to do something totally out of character?
Weinstein’s lawyer argued that the cyst had impaired Weinstein’s judgment and that he should not be held criminally responsible for the murder.
This became the first case in the United States in which a judge allowed a scan showing a defendant’s brain activity to be admitted as evidence to support a claim of innocence.
The Weinstein case ushered in a sea change in American courtrooms, as Davis shows. It wasn’t just a matter of one man’s medical issues. The ruling raised complicated questions about responsibility, free will, and how science affects moral questions.
Full disclosure—I worked with Kevin Davis, right, years ago at the Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale. He quickly became known as one of the best reporters the newspaper had. Since he left the Sun Sentinel, his reporting has appeared in a number of high-profile newspapers and magazines. He also is the author of Defending the Damned and The Wrong Man.
Davis meets the high standards I expect from him in The Brain Defense.
He doesn’t focus on the lurid details of Weinstein’s case but puts this crime and its ruling in context. Davis looks at a broader history of brain problems, from the bizarre stories of Phineas Gage, history’s most famous brain-injury survivor, and Charles Whitman, perpetrator of the 1966 Texas Tower massacre, to the role that brain damage may play in violent actions by football players and war veterans.
Davis also looks at how criminal lawyers continue to turn to neuroscience and the effects of brain injuries in determining guilt or innocence.
The Brain Defense: Murder in Manhattan and the Dawn of Neuroscience in America's Courtrooms is a fascinating read. Like any good book, the characters—who happen to be real people—are well explored. And the plot—which is all reality—is the stuff of an absorbing legal thriller.
Photo: Kevin Davis photo by Anne Ryan
This year saw the release of James Grippando’s 25th novel, and his 13th featuring Miami defense lawyer Jack Swyteck.
Most Dangerous Place takes its title from a FBI statement that the most dangerous place for a woman between the ages of 20 and 30 is in a relationship with a man. Grippando, left, skillfully weaves this issue into a well-plotted novel that keeps the suspense high and the characters believable.
In Most Dangerous Place, Jack goes to the Miami airport to pick up his best friend from high school, Keith Ingraham, his wife, Isa Bornelli, and their five-year-old daughter, Melany. Jack hasn’t seen his friend for several years since Keith and his family have been living in Hong Kong. But shortly after the family lands, Isa is arrested and charged with murdering the man who raped her when she was at the University of Miami more than a dozen years before.
Grippando has made his reputation as a solid thriller writer who can be relied on for gripping, brisk plots.
But Grippando has been adding another title to his resume: Broadway producer. For several years now, Grippando has been investing in Broadway shows through his affiliation with Greenleaf Productions.
If you were among the readers who thought you saw Grippando get up on stage during the Tony Awards a couple of years ago, along with the other producers of Matilda, you were right.
Grippando is among the producers for Matilda. He also took a chance on Audra McDonald in Lady Day and the revival of Fiddler on the Roof.
The productions of which Grippando is one of the producers are now on three continents—Groundhog Day on Broadway, Dreamgirls on London’s West End, and Matilda in Australia.
The playbill for the musical Groundhog Day lists Grippando as one of the producers.
Groundhog Day has seven Tony Award nominations, including one for Karl. By the way, Karl recently ended his run as Sgt. Mike Dodds in Season 17 of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
Look for Grippando when the producers come up on stage during the Tony Awards on June 11.
Photos: Top, James Grippando; photo courtesy Harper; Bottom, Andy Karl, photo by Joan Marcus