Genetic determinism factors into criminal sentance. End of rational jurisprudence?

This is a story I have been dreading all my life. The day when genetic determinism would factor into real world decisions effectively destroying the philosophical foundations of civilization. In a free society, it is critical that all people are equal before the law. While some, although I cannot imagine who, may feel that letting someone who commits a brutal violent crime off with a lighter sentence because they are genetically predisposed to it is a good idea, remember, once you allow that rational you have to allow it to work any other way as well.

It is the same thing to decide that since he or she is genetically predisposed to an action, that you may as well kill them for it. It becomes pre-crime. Or at least sterilize them so these genes cannot be passed on.

Of course we all know that each of us has a different genetic potential. It is in fact how natural selection works. Each of us is adapted to a set of circumstances subtly different than the person next to us. So Stephen Hawking does very very well in some environments, such as Oxford school of physics for example, while being fed to the wolves in others. However for a civilization to work, we must act on certain premises at certain levels. Where the state is concerned, all people must have equal potential before the law. If person A through Z commits a murder under identical circumstances, then the consequence must be the same. Any factor one allows, can always be used in another way and one perhaps not as palatable to many.

If the courts are to allow a criminal to be treated differently because of a genetic issue, then employers, partners and any other person will ultimately have the same right to deny service to, deny employment to, deny any other aspect of life based on the same criteria. This easily can be the end of everything. Affirmative action which should go anyway, certainly will not only have no excuse to exist but in fact genetic determinism will more than likely lead to its opposite. All forms of determinism must not be allowed at the level of the state. After all, what exactly is the blindfold around lady justice for?

Eeyore for Vlad

H/T Gates of Vienna

Lighter sentence for murderer with ‘bad genes’

Nature.com

Italian court reduces jail term after tests identify genes linked to violent behaviour.

Emiliano Feresin

ChromosomesA court in Italy has cut a prisoner’s jail term because he has genes associated with aggressive behaviour.Ingram Publishing

An Italian court has cut the sentence given to a convicted murderer by a year because he has genes linked to violent behaviour — the first time that behavioural genetics has affected a sentence passed by a European court. But researchers contacted by Nature have questioned whether the decision was based on sound science.

Abdelmalek Bayout, an Algerian citizen who has lived in Italy since 1993, admitted in 2007 to stabbing and killing Walter Felipe Novoa Perez on 10 March. Perez, a Colombian living in Italy, had, according to Bayout’s testimony, insulted him over the kohl eye make-up the Algerian was wearing. Bayout, a Muslim, claims he wore the make-up for religious reasons.

During the trial, Bayout’s lawyer, Tania Cattarossi, asked the court to take into account that her client may have been mentally ill at the time of the murder. After considering three psychiatric reports, the judge, Paolo Alessio Vernì, partially agreed that Bayout’s psychiatric illness was a mitigating factor and sentenced him to 9 years and 2 months in prison — around three years less than Bayout would have received had he been deemed to be of sound mind.

But at an appeal hearing in May this year, Pier Valerio Reinotti, a judge of the Court of Appeal in Trieste, asked forensic scientists for a new independent psychiatric report to decide whether he should commute the sentence further.

“There’s increasing evidence that some genes together with a particular environmental insult may predispose people to certain behaviour.”

Pietro Pietrini
University of Pisa

For the new report, Pietro Pietrini, a molecular neuroscientist at Italy’s University of Pisa, and Giuseppe Sartori, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Padova, conducted a series of tests and found abnormalities in brain-imaging scans and in five genes that have been linked to violent behaviour — including the gene encoding the neurotransmitter-metabolizing enzyme monoamine oxidase A (MAOA). A 2002 study led by Terrie Moffitt, a geneticist at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College, London, had found low levels of MAOA expression to be associated with aggressiveness and criminal conduct of young boys raised in abusive environments1.

In the report, Pietrini and Sartori concluded that Bayout’s genes would make him more prone to behaving violently if provoked. “There’s increasing evidence that some genes together with a particular environmental insult may predispose people to certain behaviour,” says Pietrini.

On the basis of the genetic tests, Judge Reinotti docked a further year off the defendant’s sentence, arguing that the defendant’s genes “would make him particularly aggressive in stressful situations”. Giving his verdict, Reinotti said he had found the MAOA evidence particularly compelling.

Reinotti made the decision in September, but the case only came to light a month later when the local paper MessaggeroVeneto reported the story.

Weighing up the evidence

But forensic scientists and geneticists contacted by Nature question whether the scientific evidence supports the conclusions reached in the psychiatric report presented to Judge Reinotti.

“We don’t know how the whole genome functions and the [possible] protective effects of other genes,” says Giuseppe Novelli, a forensic scientist and geneticist at the University Tor Vergata in Rome. Tests for single genes such as MAOA are “useless and expensive”, he adds.

One problem is that the effects of the MAOA gene are known to vary between different ethnic groups, Moffit says. A 2006 study in the United States found that former victims of child abuse with high levels of MAOA were less likely to commit violent crimes — but only if they were white. The effect was not evident in non-white children2.

“If the defendant has any African ancestry, this could bring up a question of how well the genotype of that particular gene could relate to his personal behaviour,” Moffitt says.

Pietrini and Sartori, however, did not test Bayout for his ethnicity.

“The ethnicity of the defendant is irrelevant” in this case, Pietrini told Nature. He argues that the defendent does not belong to any of the non-white ethnic groups considered in the 2006 study. “Besides, MAOA is just one of the candidate genes we analysed,” he added.

Terrie Moffitt

“If the defendant has any African ancestry, this could bring up a question of how well the genotype of that particular gene could relate to his personal behaviour.”

Terrie Moffitt
Institute of Psychiatry

Other genes, such as those that encode the serotonin transporter, have also been linked to different reactions to stress. But these also show a large degree of dependence on environmental factors. “The point is that behavioural genetics is not there yet, we cannot explain individual behaviour, only large population statistics,” says Nita Farahany of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, who specializes in the legal and ethical issues arising from behavioural genetics and neuroscience.

Cattarossi argues that all evidence that has a bearing on her client’s mental health should be considered by the court. “My client is clearly an ill person and everything that allows the judge to better evaluate the case and to decide the right sentence should be investigated,” she says.

Since the 1994 Stephen Mobley case in the United States — the first case in the world in which the defence asked to have their client tested for MAOA deficiency — lawyers have increasingly been trying to bring MAOA deficits and similar genetic evidence into courtrooms worldwide. According to Farahany, who updates a personal database on sentences passed in the United States, in the past five years there have been at least 200 cases where lawyers have attempted to use genetic evidence to support the idea their clients’ were predisposed to violent behaviour, depression or drug or alcohol abuse. In Britain, there have been at least 20 such cases in the past five years.

About Eeyore

Canadian artist and counter-jihad and freedom of speech activist as well as devout Schrödinger's catholic

3 Replies to “Genetic determinism factors into criminal sentance. End of rational jurisprudence?”

  1. It’s fair enough really, if the murderer has a genetic predisposition towards violence, then the victim is less dead. It’s obvious when you think about it.
    Funny how it’s assumed he should automatically get a lighter sentence, no one ever suggests that he should actually get a much longer sentence, because he’s biologically much more dangerous, and less able to change. That would be divisive, probably lead to a break down in community relations or something.
    So a huzzah for the victim, who gave his life so murderers with a genetic predisposition to murder can get a shorter sentence in order to carry on with their genetic predisposition.
    Brave new world.

  2. This is a note from the two court experts (Pietro Pietrini, molecular neuroscientisit from the University of Pisa and Giuseppe Sartori, Cognitive Neuroscientist from the University of Padova) involved in the Bayout case in Italy. (see Nature news: ttp://www.nature.com/news/2009/091030/full/news.2009.1050.html)

    No es mi culpa: son mis genes
    Bad genes get a ligther sentence
    Strafmilderung wegen “schlechter Gene”
    The “DNA Pardon”: Murder sentence genetically reduced
    Un juge italien découvre le gène du meutre

    These titles, used to summarise a decision from an Italian Criminal Court on a case of “diminuished capacity” due to psychiatric problems, are ill-posed and do not represent the core issue of this forensic case. Nowhere in our report or in the judge decision it is claimed a causal link between genes and criminal behaviour.

    Dimisnuished responsibility was proved by a casual link (required by Italian criminal law) between a pathological mental state and and the criminal behaviour. The crime (homicide) resulted to be a symptom of the undelying psychiatric disorder. The defendant had a reduced capacity to “do otherwise” due to his mental illness.

    Given that psychiatric symptoms may be easily faked as they are mostly based on the defendant’s verbal report, the objectivisation of the “disease of the mind” is therefore critical.
    Evidence that the psychiatric phenomenology causally linked to the crime has a “hard” neural basis was investigated using neuropsychological assessment, MRI and fMRI (using the stop-signal as activation task) and molecular genetics. Cognitive and molecular neurosciences aìwere not used to causally explain the crime but to insturmentally prove the “hard” correlates of themental illness wichi symtpoms are acusally linked to the crime.

    We have found that the psychosis was also accompanied by other severe cognitive disorders, by a dysfunctional frontal lobe and a sfavorable genetics. We have assessed the defendant, previously evaluated only with a psychiatric interview, also with a full neuropsychological, imaging (morphological and functional) and genetic evaluation. The psychiatric interview may be may be easily faked by the defendant and it has a unsatisfacory inter-rated concordance. Neuroscience methods may, therefore, be used to better picture the “disease of mind” but can say nothing, contrary to what seems attributed to us, about the direct proximal causal link with the crime.The symptoms which, by incontrovertible evidence, are linked to the crime are a fully blown untreated psychotic state characterised by delusions of persecuzione, lowIQ, a very poor “theory of mind”, and control of impulse. THESE ARE THE DIRECT CAUSES OF THE CRIME NOT THE BRAIN OR THE GENETIC.

    In order to better characterise the required “disease of the mind” there is the legal requirement to show that the disease has a biological basis.Altered brain functioning in controlling behaviour and genetics are the required biological markers of the “disease of the mind”. The only methods that can respond to this requirements are the methods of neuroscience that we have applied. THE CRITICAL ISSUE IS WHETHER THERE ARE BETTER TECHNIQUES, TO ADDRESS THIS ISSUES OTHER THAN THE ONE USED BY US? WE BELIEVE THE RESPONSE IS NO.

    As regards to moleculasr genetics, we sequenced 5HTTLPR, STin2 – VNTR (Variable Number of Tandem Repeats) , rs4680, MAOA, DRD4-1/7. Results showed that for each of the examined genes the Defendant had one or both the alleles found to be significantly associated with aggressive and violent behavior.In our specific case, as I said above, for each of the candidate genes examined the subject had one or even both the alleles associated with a significantly greater risk for abnormal aggression, impulsivity and violence. This is a very sensitive issue and there is a need to be absolutely clear. To date there is NO indication of any DETERMINISTIC effect, that is, there is no genetic variant that determines abnormally aggressive behavior (no cause-effect relationship). What the studies reported in the literature have shown is that possessing one or more specific allele(s) is associated with a significantly greater probability of having abnormal aggressive behavior. That is, possessing such a variant is neither necessary nor sufficient to have abnormal aggressive behavior. However, the incidence of individuals with abnormal aggressive behavior is significantly greater in the group of people with such a variant than in the group without.

    It is important to clarify that results from association studies have shown that possessing one or more of these genetic variants makes the individual more vulnerable to the effects of an unfavourable environment, such as childhood abuse and maltreatment or social exclusion (see for instance Caspi et al., Science, 2002; Eisenberger et al., Biol Psychiatry, 2006). Indeed, some of these environmental features were present in the case of our Proband.

    In no way the conclusions reported in our evaluation of the defendant can be interpreted in a way that denies free will in favour of a genetic determinism (“I did not do it, my genes made me do it”, like a couple of newspaper titled). Indeed, our conclusion was based on the whole evaluation of the defendant, who showed a limited cognitive development (IQ= 70), a history of psychotic disorder with delusional ideation, a history of social exclusion, abnormal performance on cognitive testing for impulse control, abnormal pattern of brain activity in response to inhibition tasks and, finally, a genetic background associated with a statistically significant higher risk of impulsivity and aggressive behavior, especially in response to provocation. Considered each and all these pieces of evidence, we concluded that the defendant at a greatly diminished capacity, which is, by law, by law a mitigating factor.

    Skeptics say that behavioral genetics studies are mostly based on correlations in groups of people so these data is hardly applicable to single individuals. This is false logic. Such a statement, infact, applies to every aspect of medical science. What I mean is that there is no test in medicine that has a sensitivity nor a specificity of 100%. Not even for a diagnosis of hyperglicemia you can rely on a clear-cut reference value, simply because what we call “normal reference values” are obtained through a statistical evaluation of data collected from hundreds of subjects. Thus, such objections are a too simple way to disguise the question. Data are data. In medicine, there is increasing evidence showing that having certain genetic variants increases the susceptibility to certain disease or may affect the likelihood to respond to specific drug treatment. Oncologists already take into account the genetic features of their patients in deciding for the best treatment strategy. In neuroscience, genetic and molecular studies are offering a powerful tool to understand the complex interaction between genetic characteristics and environmental factors in shaping our personality and behavior. This is with no doubt a great step forward. We need to avoid oversimplification as well as mystification. The titles of some news reports I read about this case around the world are simply misleading and untrue. In no way the conclusions reported in our evaluation of the defendant can be interpreted in a way that denies free will in favour of a genetic determinism (“I did not do it, my genes made me do it”, like a couple of newspaper titled). Indeed, our conclusion was based on the whole evaluation of the defendant, who showed a below normal cognitive efficiency (IQ= 70), a history of psychotic disorder with delusional ideation, a history of social exclusion, abnormal performance on cognitive testing for impulse control, abnormal pattern of brain activity in response to inhibition tasks and, finally, a genetic background associated with a statistically significant higher risk of impulsivity and aggressive behavior, especially in response to provocation. Considered each and all these pieces of evidence, we concluded that the defendant at a greatly diminished capacity, which is the requisite by law for a judge to cut the sentence.

    The Court recognised all these further data as more convincing than a previous court evaluation based solely on the clinical interview and applied the maximum sentence reduction for “diminuished capacity”. This further reduction was worth 8 months.

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