Genetics – a defence to murder?
After an Italian murderer had his sentence reduced due to having a "violent gene", could DNA profiles be used as a defence in criminal courts?
Walter Perez was murdered for taunting a Muslim man, Abdelmalek Bayout, about wearing eye makeup. The Murderer was sentenced to nine years. This has however been reduced because, according to scientists, he possesses five genes known to be associated with violent behaviour.
Should behavioural genetics have any influence in court?
Please cast your vote after you've read the arguments.
You can also add to the debate by leaving a comment at the end of the page.
Genetics are not the 'be all and end all'.
There are many aggravating and indeed mitigating factors that a court must consider when reaching a decision. If Genetics have indeed played a part in the crime then should they not at the very least be considered by the judge?
If we begin to allow people mitigating circumstances due to their genetic make up, then we are creating yet another excuse. People are not fat because they have ‘fat genes’ just like people are not violent because they have ‘violent genes’. There may be genes that make us more susceptible to such traits, but we are ultimately responsible for our own actions. And it is when we shirk this responsibility that we should be punished with the full arm of the law.
Who is the victim here?
Should such a 'violent gene' exist, and possession of it means that a simple rude comment, one that you or I may shrug off, might compell someone to murder in response to it, then who is the victim here?
Ought the link between anti-social behaviour and genetics be parallel to that with mental illness? Afterall, the defence of Insanity already exists and is frequently employed in many courts.
Where genetics are concerned, the question as to whether someone's predisposition to rage or violence can exonerate or mitigate the crime they commit has already faced the US courts, where a 'Serotonin Defence' already exists. In several cases low levels of Serotonin in an individual, which can be associated with depression and the inability to control impulses, have resulted in reduced sentences for those who have committed crime.
As you have stated, metal illnesses are already catered for in the law. We have defences of automatism (whereby someone commits a crime in a state on not thinking, like sleep walking) and also insanity (whereby the functioning of ones brain does not allow the person to see the nature and quality of their acts by normal standards of behaviour). These defences exist in order to mitigate punishment for those who cannot control their behaviour in the same way as ‘normal’ members of society can. If a violent gene exists it should be assessed under these two headings and not given another title; another excuse. The pre existing legal framework is adequate to cover such a ‘violent gene’.
Natural Born Killers?
If the existence of a 'violent gene' can be proved, and there are members of society who if provoked will be unable to control their subsequent actions, even if those actions amount to murder, then genetics absolutely must be considered in the law courts.
The existence of such a gene appears to suggest that there exist people who are inherently bad. How should society deal with those who are apparently born killers?
To say, as has been said, that possession of such a gene should result in a lesser punishment in the face of justice is, to some, unfair, unjust and insufficient as a remedy to the problem. But that is not to say that greater punishment is the answer either.
There must be a balance between ensuring the safety of the general public and also the welfare of those sufferring from such a genetically inherent violent streak.
For some, taking a step inside the minds of killers in an attempt to empathise with them is a step too far, but to not allow consideration of 'why' someone has committed a crime is perhaps a step in the wrong direction.
The important question is not ‘why’ someone has committed a crime, but are they likely to do it again. By punishing criminals what we are doing is protecting our society. The only benefit we have in assessing different motives behind murder is to distinguish whether it would be safe to let that criminal back into society. In the cases of automatism, the person often gets acquitted as it was not a personality trait that led to the action and so there is little chance of it reoccurring. With insanity, what follows is not a prison sentence, but sectioning. This can be seen as a worse alternative as a prison sentence can be halved for good behaviour, but once sectioned, the sentence can be a lifetime. The question therefore is not about blameworthiness or empathy, but about how likely it is the crime will be committed again. If we admitted that there was a violent gene, then surely these are the sorts of people we should be putting into prison, to keep them out of society!
Is this 'Sound Science' or are Defendants simply clutching at straws?
Is the idea of a genetic predisposition to violent behaviour sufficiently supported to be used as a defence to crime in court? Before such a defence gains judicial validity in future court cases courts must be certain that such a predisposition actually exists and has the effects to the extent to which it is claimed.
Giuseppe Novelli, a forensic scientist and geneticist at the University Tor Vergata in Rome says, "We don't know how the whole genome functions and the [possible] protective effects of other genes".
If such a defence is to be allowed in law then there must be a better understanding and scientifically proven basis for its use before it is employed in any court, particularly where a crime of murder is concerned.
You would think that this was the case with law. However, it is not. The medicinal world has very little impact on the legal world. We can see this with the plea of insanity. The courts have clearly iterated time and time again that the law does not follow medical definitions. The law forms its own definitions. To plea insanity it has to be something internal. Therefore, someone having a hyperglycaemic attack after not taking their insulin will be able to plea insanity as it is their own bodies’ functioning. However, someone who accidentally injected too much insulin would not have the defence open to them as they put something into their body. This does not follow what medicine has to say on the matter, as neither would be classed as insanity! Therefore, the law does not need medicines approval in order to create a defence based upon the violent gene, but medicine may be an influencing factor on the jury.
Is Law and Order going soft?
Can criminals really be excused for their crimes because of their inability to control themselves?
In the past courts have seen fit to rule against people who suffer from diabetes and who, having failed to properly control their condition or by not taking their medication, have caused injury or worse whilst falling asleep at the wheel of their vehicles.
Knowing your condition better than anyone else are you not therefore more responsible for your behaviour?
The role of the Law is to draw boundries and set a precedent for what is acceptable behaviour and what is permissable in society. So what precedent has this ruling set? At a glance it would appear to indicate that courts will adopt a more lenient approach with those members of society who are more likely to commit crimes such as murder.
Predisposed to violence or not, we are all aware of the law, if not its intricate details then at the very least the difference between right and wrong. Being more prone to violent outbursts must demand that those who suffer from this gene take greater precaution to control their behaviour as opposed to being granted leniency from the courts.
The sentence should have been extended, not shortened.
Based on the information from several psychiatric reports, the judge agreed that psychiatric illness was a mitigating factor in this case and handed down a sentence of 9 years and 2 months in prison — a sentence approximately three years shorter than could have been expected had the defendant been deemed to be of sound mind.
It seems paradoxical that someone who is more likely to commit violent crime be given a shorter punishment. Is it not in the public interest to extend the sentence thus keeping the criminal away from general members of the public for longer?
Nature and Nurture
Whilst genetics are widely accepted to play a role in people's characteristics, they are not the be all and end all. If someone is proven to have a genetic predisposition to violence, that inevitably makes life more difficult for them. However, is this not simply being used as an excuse? If this gene exists, it is surely how someone deals with it that should be considered. Many people with serious anger or violence issues go through anger management and come out of it able to control their anger and stop themselves from becoming violent. If people have a predisposition to violence, make no effort to get help with it, and then go on to commit violent crimes should not get any sympathy from the judiciary. On the other hand maybe if someone has such a predisposition to violence and has clearly made every effort to manage their condition and ends up committing a violent crime should maybe have that effort taken into consideration. However this would require proof in terms of the genetic predisposition in order to prevent it being used as an excuse by those with no right to use it.
Not "in court," but other considerations should be made.
It should not be an issue "in court." Court is for determining whether or not the person in question committed their act. Their motives as a human being, and potential to contribute something positive to society, are much more complex issues.
Yes, some people are more prone to committing violent behavior than others, just as some are more prone to mental illness such as depression or schizophrenia. And if one does not believe in some abstraction such as a "soul" or a "spirit" that operates independently of the physical universe, then these individual, inherent "traits," "variations," whatever you want to call them, must have scientific causes, which makes the issue much more complex. The factors may be in our genes, or in the acquired trait of brain damage from high lead levels in someone's sphagetti. Who knows. Certainly not a jury. I suppose if we possess "souls" apart from the body it would be much simpler, one can make black and white statements such as "she is a good soul" or "he is bad one," because there is no scientific way to discuss a soul.
That being said, the second step (the first being the determination of whether the person willfully committed murder, which is the purpose of a trial) would be to assess, with the help of mental health professionals, the murderer's deeper intentions. This may sound vague but basically it means differentiating between "type A"'s (someone who is willfully antisocial, shows no remorse, and expresses no wish to become a functioning member of society) from the "type B's" (someone who wants to become a functioning, contributing member of society, but needs professional help to achieve it).
Of course there is no clear line between the two types, it is not an either/or issue; there is a whole spectrum between the types. This is why I say "NOT IN COURT" because it is too complicated an issue for a jury or a single judge. If a person is found guilty of murder they should receive their due sentence. Justice is justice. But after the sentence is laid down, there should ideally exist an extended system of justice where perhaps a group of mental health professionals convene to determine if extra tax money should be spent on helping those who were genetically less able to control their behavior. The tax money would be spent on extra counseling and correctional programs to help them achieve their goal of becoming a normal member of society. Provided that is, REALLY, their goal, and they are not feigning good intentions so they can go out and kill more people.
What do you think?