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Clay Rossi
Clay Rossi
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The Effects of Strange Side Effects

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The Atlantic magazine has written a very interesting piece on a Tylenol study that raises many more questions than it answers. It seems that acetaminophen is not only an effective pain reliever but also has “subtle cognitive effects” on those who take the drug which “altered the way subjects passed moral judgments.” What does this mean?

It seems that acetaminophen takes the edge off of people’s anxiety. While this can generally be viewed as a positive, one of the studies raised novel legal issues. One of the ways in which the study was carried out was by testing how high Tylenol users set bond for a fictional prostitute against a control group who did not take acetaminophen. Those who were acetaminophen users set lower bail numbers which was alleged to be a function of their “sense of moral judgment [being] blunted.” (Perhaps even more telling the acetaminophen users seemed not to be so bothered by creepy, surrealistic David Lynch films.)

If the claims about acetaminophen having a cognitive effect prove true, whether a potential juror is taking the drug would seem to be a necessary inquiry during voir dire. Theoretically, jurors who have been chemically blunted will not respond in a typical fashion to those aspects of a case which are shocking. One could infer that this raises the possibility of chemically induced lower verdicts. It might also spell problems to the adherents of the “reptile” method which relies on raising anxiety levels in the jury concerning the defendant’s bad behavior.

While its not clear whether further research will bolster the initial claims concerning acetaminophen, it raises questions that need to be considered. Are there similar or even contrary effects caused by other over-the-counter or prescription drugs? If so, where will the line be drawn between a potential jurors right to medical privacy and counsel’s right to know whether the person takes medications which have an effect on how that person processes the evidence?

Certainly judges don't hesitate to disqualify the drunk or drug-addled jurors who might not act according to the dictates of reason but what do you do with the juror who has merely been dulled? Is there a right to a fully “unimpaired” juror? Does such a juror even exist?

If acetaminophen effects are determined largely emotional in nature, is there any right to question potential jurors about usage, as emotions are improper bases of awards?

Only time will tell.