Genetics – a defence to murder?
Last updated: March 3, 2017
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?
Genetics are not the 'be all and end all'.
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.
Natural Born Killers?
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.
Is this 'Sound Science' or are Defendants simply clutching at straws?
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.
Is Law and Order going soft?
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.
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
Not "in court," but other considerations should be made.
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.