DNA on the Witness Stand

Courts Face Challenges When Linking Genetics to Criminal Behavior

Studies suggest that some people may be at increased risk of criminal behavior because of their genes. Such research has the potential to help judges and juries with some of the difficult decisions they must make, but it also brings a substantial risk of misinterpretation and misuse within the legal system. Addressing these issues will be of critical importance in upholding principles of justice and fairness, according to a paper published in the June 4 issue of the Cell Press journal Neuron.

“Genetic evidence, properly used, could assist with judgments regarding appropriate criminal punishments, causes of injury or disability, and other questions before the courts,” said author Dr. Paul Appelbaum, director of Columbia University’s Center for Research on Ethical, Legal & Social Implications of Psychiatric, Neurologic & Behavioral Genetics and the Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor in Columbia’s Department of Psychiatry.

Genetic evidence has been presented in criminal trials to suggest that defendants have diminished understanding of or control over their behavior, most often in arguments for mitigating sentences—especially for defendants facing the death penalty. Genetic evidence may also play an increasing role in civil trials regarding issues such as causation of injury. For example, employers contesting work-related mental disability claims might want claimants to undergo genetic testing to prove that an underlying disorder was not responsible for their impairment.

“The complexity of genetic information and our incomplete understanding of the roots of behavior raise the possibility that genetic evidence will be misused or misunderstood. Hence, care is needed in evaluating the extent to which genetic evidence may have something to add to the legal proceedings in a given case,” said Dr. Appelbaum, who is also Director of the Division of Law, Ethics and Psychiatry at the New York State Psychiatric Institute.

A number of questions must be addressed. For example, to what extent do specific genetic variants make it more difficult to understand or control one’s behavior, and what are the biological mechanisms involved? Also, what is the best way to respond to individuals with genetic predispositions to criminal behavior, to diminish the risk of recidivism?

Dr. Appelbaum notes that it will be an ongoing challenge for both legal and genetic experts to monitor the use of genetic data in the courts to ensure that the conclusions drawn validly reflect current science. Without such efforts, judges and juries may overestimate or underestimate the conclusions that can be drawn from genetic evidence, distorting the legal process.

Work on this paper was supported by a grant from the National Human Genome Research Institute (1P50HG007257-02).

The authors declare no financial or other conflicts of interest.

*This release was written and distributed originally by Cell Press.

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