Monday, April 28, 2008

Would you buy the "my genes made me do it" defense?

Last Sunday, a Washington Post article looked at the ways in which DNA is being used in the legal system for purposes other than identification – a key theme in my legal thriller, JANEOLOGY.

In the Washington Post article, writer Rick Weiss says,

Studies have shown that up to 62 percent of antisocial and criminal behavior is "heritable," a rough measure of a genetic contribution. And in a few cases, courts have allowed arguments seemingly akin to "My genes made me do it."

Weiss goes on to discuss one of the biggest debates surrounding this kind of evidence, writing,
[I]n a rare case in which a court did accept evidence of a defendant's inborn "propensity to commit murder," that court, in Idaho, considered it an aggravating factor, not a mitigating one, and used it to help justify the death sentence.

Such decisions are worrisome, said Markus Heilig, a research psychiatrist and neurochemist at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. "To argue that behavior can be predicted, you are arguing this guy does not have free will," Heilig said. "So how can you hold someone accountable?"

Not everyone goes that far.

"Just because you can explain a behavior's cause doesn't mean it is excusable," said Nita Farahany, an expert in behavioral genetics and the law at Vanderbilt University.

Read the full article here.

An interesting look at this article is also discussed by criminal defense lawyer Scott Greenfield on his blog Simple Justice.

In response to the Washington Post article, Greenfield writes:

"Now that DNA is going to be collected from arrestees, not just the convicted, a whole new world of potentially innocent people will be brought into the DNA pool. No, not just the arrestees, but their families and children who are not yet a twinkle in their eye. Are you seeing the scope of this situation?"

What I find interesting and compelling is this: If I were on a jury listening to present character witnesses testify about a defendants' credibility – would I be prepared to give equal weight to the character witnesses of the person's past vis a vis his/her gene pool?

The whole structure of JANEOLOGY puts you in the jury seat. Without giving away the story's verdict, I can tell you that by the story's end, you will have this decision to make.

What did Jane do and why?
Find out at

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