November 09, 2009
Genes and criminals: Italian court makes controversial ruling
“Don’t blame me—it was my genes’ fault.” Could this be the plea of future criminals? In Italy, the case of a man who confessed to murder in 2007 may set a precedent.
It’s not that unusual that an Italian court gave Abdelmalek Bayout three years less than it otherwise would have because his lawyer argued Bayout was mentally ill at the time of the crime. What is unprecedented, though, is that at an appeal hearing in September the judge removed an additional year from the defendant’s sentence based on genetic tests. The judge believed Bayout’s genes made him “particularly aggressive in stressful situations,” basing his decision on the tests that revealed Bayout to have low levels of MAOA, a trait which has been linked to criminal behavior.
It was the first time in a European court that behavioral genetics has affected a sentence. In the United States, this type of defense has been used more than 200 times in the past five years and in rare cases has influenced sentencing.
“There’s increasing evidence that some genes together with a particular environmental insult may predispose people to certain behavior,” Pietro Pietrini, a molecular neuroscientist at Italy’s University of Pisa and one of the researchers investigating Bayout’s genetic makeup, said in a Nature news article.
Many people argue that this is true for anyone. It’s certainly a worthwhile question: Isn’t anyone who commits murder at least a little bit mentally ill? While this particular criminal’s sentence was reduced, others have argued that courts could rule the other way—if the person’s genes are “bad,” perhaps the sentencing should be stricter.
Many researchers contacted by Nature also questioned the court’s decisions. Giuseppe Novelli, a forensic scientist and geneticist, said that tests for single genes are “useless.” The judge may not have considered some additional relevant factors when analyzing the results, according to geneticist Terrie Moffitt.
It’s an interesting debate and likely one with too many factors to be settled any time soon.