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Junk Psychobiology in the Courtroom

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"Your honor, my genes made me do it."

That is the headline above this op-ed in the WSJ by Judith Edersheim, Bruce Price, and Jordan Smoller.  "Drs. Edersheim and Price are co-directors of the Center for Law, Brain and Behavior at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. Dr. Smoller is on the center's scientific faculty."

Experts at the University of Utah, led by psychologist Lisa Aspinwall, conducted an experiment using a hypothetical defendant. It suggested that if a judge is presented with testimony that the defendant's violent or criminal behavior is in part caused by a genetic predisposition to aggression or criminality--and if he is told that research shows that the brains of psychopaths look different from those of nonpsychopaths--the judge is likely to impose a lighter sentence. The study has generated widespread attention. It implies that judges may be more lenient if they are persuaded that a person didn't have free will because he was, in effect, born to be bad, and his brain and genes "made him do it."
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In the hypothetical presented in the Science paper, a make-believe scientific expert testified that psychopathy has a neurobiologic cause--a gene variation (low monoamine oxidase, or MAO-A, activity), atypical brain functioning (in the amygdala) and other neurodevelopmental factors. While this argument is now becoming common in real criminal cases throughout the country, it represents an unfounded exercise in biologic and neurological determinism.
In other words, just because the testimony is junk science doesn't mean it won't get less time for the defendant.

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