I have been discussing the execution of Cecil Clayton and an opinion made about Clayton’s death by Jerry Coyne on his blog Why Evolution is True [61, 67]. Coyne states that free will is an illusion and that we are essentially organic machines running software programmed by our genetic and environmental heritage. As an illustration of this argument, Coyne chose to focus on the capital punishment of Cecil Clayton.
Cecil Clayton was executed by the state of Missouri on March 17, 2015 for the killing of Deputy Sheriff Christopher Castetter. Clayton’s situation sparked interest due to Clayton suffering brain injury approximately two decades prior to his 1996 murder of Deputy Castetter.
In 1972, Clayton was injured while self-employed as a sawmill operator. A piece of wood ejected from Clayton’s saw and entered Clayton’s skull impaling his left frontal lobe. In order to remove the object, Clayton’s brain was resected in surgery and resulted in a 20 percent loss of Clayton’s damaged lobe.
Clayton’s injury was not insignificant.
In general, the frontal lobes serve important executive functions including planning, anticipation of future events, selecting optimal choices, and suppressing socially inappropriate urges. Contained within the frontal lobes is the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is frequently implicated as one of the more important brain structures in understanding our unique personalities or that which makes us distinct from each other.
(I appreciate that Coyne does not accept that we have choice, but if free will or our sense of self could ever be said to have a home, the frontal lobes and, specifically, the prefrontal cortex would be the place to look.)
At Clayton’s trial and subsequent appeals, his defense argued that Clayton — due to his medical history — possessed diminished capacity to form intent to murder. The state of Missouri was not persuaded and Clayton’s defense was unsuccessful.
Coyne disagreed with the decisions of the initial trial jury and later judicial appeals. According to Coyne, their error was not in that they failed to properly consider the impact of Clayton’s brain injury but that they assumed that Clayton could have exercised choice. None of us, in Coyne’s view, can exercise choice or free will. As a consequence, the state should have incarcerated Clayton for life as a protection to society and should not have moved to execute Clayton.
Because Coyne is focused on the argument that all behavior is determined and not under volitional control, his discussion of Clayton’s execution, on first glance, seems odd. Whether brain injured or not, Clayton’s behavior — according to Coyne — is determined. So, apart from Coyne’s distaste for capital punishment, why focus on Clayton’s medical history at all? If all of us have no choice, what difference does it make that Clayton possessed any damage to his brain?
It is even more puzzling that Coyne argued that those who executed Clayton should have acted differently. If none of us can exercise choice, is this not also true for the members of Clayton’s jury or the judiciary of the State of Missouri?
In part, the rational of Coyne’s logic focuses on the idea that there exists not one but two separate brain programs that determine action. One program is more emotive and primitive and the other more rational and civilized. Theoretically, Clayton, due to his brain injury, could not access his more rational program and his actions were driven by his emotive self. Such a person, in Coyne’s opinion, is best treated through sequestration from society for his and our own protection. Any desire for execution is essentially an emotive response from the state. It is not rational (or scientific) and, according to Coyne, it misunderstands all that we know about the brain and how it works.
During Clayton’s trial and appeals, Clayton’s defense team presented a similar argument (absent the programmatic tone). Quoting from Clayton’s appeal and brief to the Missouri Supreme Court [references removed]:
Foster reviewed numerous records including records of Clayton’s incarceration at the Lawrence County jail and the Jasper County jail, Clayton’s treatment at Nevada State Hospital, Clayton’s school records, Back’s raw data, Morse’s report, and all of the psychiatric and psychological evaluations in Clayton’s Social Security file. Foster interviewed several friends and family members of Clayton. Foster interviewed Clayton for four hours and discussed the events surrounding the shooting with Clayton.
At his  post-conviction hearing Clayton presented the testimony of Dr. Daniel Foster and a complete set of Clayton’s records. Foster is a forensic psychologist and is trained in neuropsychology. Foster was employed with the United States Bureau of Prisons for approximately fifteen years. He has performed hundreds of forensic evaluations and has supervised thousands.
Foster explained that in 1972, rehabilitation for brain injuries did not exist. From 1985 to 1986, Foster worked at the hospital where Clayton had his surgery. The hospital did not begin developing a neuro-rehabilitation facility until the mid-1980s. At the time Clayton was injured, a brain-damaged person was considered recovered if he could walk, talk, and use the bathroom.
Foster explained that cognitive rehabilitation therapy is important, because a damaged brain has to be retrained to find neural pathways around damaged or missing brain tissue. It is critical, however, to begin rehabilitation therapy within twelve months of sustaining the injury. Once twenty-four months have passed, rehabilitation therapy does not provide significant improvement.
Foster explained that the frontal lobe is in charge of executive function; in other words, it is the boss of every conscious decision. The frontal lobes are responsible for all of the behavior unique to human beings. Information travels from the limbic system to the frontal lobe so the frontal lobe can give meaning to the information. If information, or a signal, cannot reach the frontal lobe due to damaged or missing brain tissue, the signal bounces back to the limbic system and causes a flight or fight response. The person will become aggressive or will retire and hide. This is why frontal lobe damaged people have high anxiety levels. Their frontal lobe cannot interpret all of the information coming into their brain, therefore the person has no explanation for the incoming stimuli.
Although Clayton’s defense was rejected by the court, Foster’s explanation did represent a common (if somewhat abbreviated) version of how many thought the brain might theoretically function. That is, there exists an evolutionary lower or more basic brain system that is morphologically well defined and holds the repository of our emotions. It was thought that this system — the limbic system — can operate independently from the more higher (or more evolutionary recent) rational system of the frontal lobes or neocortex. Under most circumstances, those systems would normally “talk” to each other to arrive at a synthesized interpretation of a person’s reality and ultimately drive behavior.
However, should that conversation be disrupted due to disease or damage (as argued with Cecil Clayton), then the emotive — the primitive — would reign supreme and possibly run unchecked.
This concept of distinct brain systems or complexes operating in conjunction but independently is at the heart of both Clayton’s defense and Coyne’s rationale against capital punishment. It assumes that the rational and the emotional are unique and are represented as such within specific preserved brain structures.
I will talk more about the limbic system later due to its strong influence in neuro-cognitive theory as well as its dominant presence in our cultural and personal beliefs about human behavior. But not just yet. However, to give you some background, I will point you to the Wikipedia entry on the limbic system.
It is a fascinating read. And it is possibly wrong.
But next I want to discuss the law and then add in some facts.
Then I will return to the limbic system.
- State of Missouri v. Cecil L. Clayton, 995 S.W.2d 468 (1999)
- Appeal Supreme Court Missouri (2001)
- Opinion Supreme Court Missouri (2001)