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“Aggression genes”, Asperger’s and Absolution (for criminal acts)

Monday, December 21, 2009
posted by Rita Handrich

double helix DNAAs we hear more and more about the brain in the courtroom, it only makes sense that we would also be hearing about genes and other conditions that are put forth as explanations/defenses for criminal behavior. Isn’t it nice when the world makes sense?

In 2007, Abdelmalek Bayout acknowledged stabbing and killing a man and was sentenced to 9 years and 2 months. But an appeals judge in Italy cut Bayout’s sentence by a year after learning Mr. Bayout has gene variants linked to aggression.

In the United States, a physics graduate student was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome during his 2004 trial on seven counts of arson and one count of conspiracy in vandalizing/firebombing more than 130 vehicles in 2003. When the judge ruled that his Asperger’s diagnosis could not be introduced, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals tossed out the arson convictions leaving only the conspiracy count. Prosecutors sent him back to prison, receiving the original 100 month sentence that William “Billy” Cottrell originally was sentenced to for both counts.

The question of whether ‘aggression genes’ or Asperger’s (characterized as a social naivete with concrete reasoning and inability to understand when people are lying) can excuse criminal behavior—from murder to firebombing—remains an open issue. Defense attorneys can argue predisposition (through genes or disorder) or even pre-determined behaviors, and prosecutors can argue personal responsibility, knowledge of right and wrong, research on twins showing not everyone behaves illegally, the importance of consequences for actions, and social mores.

Our genes are not deterministic. Our diagnosed medical/mental conditions do not excuse us from being responsible for behaving badly towards others. Except when a defense argument appeals to the mysteries of genetic codes and their impact on behavior and the situational determinants of behavior weighing on all of us but more heavily on some than others. For now, the jury is out on whether convincing defense arguments can be made on criminal cases.

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