Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Continuing on the Free Will/Science, from Dana Foundation Blog

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.

—Andrew Kahn


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  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.

    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 causal 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 causally 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.