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Prove genetic predisposition and American courts more likely to give a psychopath a break

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Criminal psychopaths in the United States whose lawyers provide biological evidence for their brain condition are more likely to be sentenced to shorter jail terms than those who are simply said to be psychopaths…

A study published in the journal Science found that if judges were told a criminal was a psychopath, they considered it an aggravating factor. But if they also heard biological explanations for the disorder, they gave shorter sentences.

Researchers from the University of Utah who conducted the study said the findings were surprising and worrying, and external experts said they had problematic implications for how brain science might affect criminal justice in future.

“In the coming years, we are likely to find out about all kinds of biological causes of criminal behavior, so the question is, why does the law care if most behavior is biologically caused?” said Teneille Brown, an associate professor at the university’s college of law…

Several studies in recent years have found that psychopaths who have committed serious crimes like murder and rape have faulty connections in their brains which show up on functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans.

These and other advances in neuroscience have led some to worry that such scientific evidence may be used increasingly in court to explain criminal actions or argue mitigating circumstances…

Brown and her colleagues said their study raised ethical questions: Whether it was right to reduce a criminal’s sentence because defective genes or brain function meant he had less self-control and ability to tell right from wrong. Or whether such evidence should be an argument for a harsher sentence because the criminal may be more likely to reoffend.

Though I have an abiding interest in the law – and justice – the topic raises new and interesting conflicts between the two. Teneille Brown’s questions put it to the test of ethical decisions that are going to have to be written into legal precedent.

So far, I haven’t an opinion. Though, having spent a few years BITD immersed in studies of the value of sociopathy in the creative arts – I recall what conclusions I came to at the time. Norman Mailer and Nietzsche were wrong.

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Written by Ed Campbell

August 17, 2012 at 6:00 am

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