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‘Criminal gene’ raises legal and moral issues

‘Criminal gene’ raises legal and moral issues

A University of Canterbury (UC) academic says the development of research around a ‘criminal gene’ and its increasing use in legal cases internationally raises scary issues for societies around the globe.

Dr Debra Wilson’s new book Genetics, Crime and Justice examines the legal and ethical issues raised by the scientific research and explores how the criminal justice system currently reacts, and ought to react, to the new challenges presented by genetic evidence.

“Genetics and neuroscience are going to change the criminal justice system,” says Wilson.

“The genetics defence has already been used in more than 200 cases in America and in Europe, which raises questions around verdicts, jury decisions and sentencing.

“If a defendant is arguably ‘not responsible’ due to a genetic predisposition to crime or violence, legally they cannot be found guilty of murder for example, but is this how society wants its laws applied?

“And what are the implications for sentencing – should those with the gene be punished with a shorter sentence or locked up longer because of their genetic tendency towards aggression and violence?”

Wilson says her book does not provide the answers, but raises important questions that societies, governments and the legal fraternity around the world need to consider.

“We need to talk about these issues and figure out how to respond to these scientific discoveries. With the growing use of DNA databases, there are issues around privacy and individual rights that need to be considered – should everyone be tested and how should we respond when the gene is identified?”

Wilson says research shows the gene can help explain why an offender did what they did, but it is not the only factor. The risk comes from a combination of genetics and environment – in this case, maltreatment as a child. These findings also strengthen the demand to reduce child abuse.

The book covers a subject similar to one explored in the movie ‘Minority Report’, where a special police unit in a future fictional society is able to arrest murderers before they commit their crimes, and also ‘Gattaca’ where a similarly future fictitious society genetically tests all children at birth, and classifies those with undesirable genes as ‘invalid’, limiting their role in society.

The textbook, published by Edward Elgar Publishing in the United Kingdom, includes a layperson description of the science related to the ‘criminal gene’ because Wilson says “we need to know what the science is telling us in order to consider the legal issues”. The content is relevant across a range of international jurisdictions and not focused on one particular legal system.

Wilson hopes the book will be used by criminal and medical law students along with academics, practitioners and policymakers interested in exploring various criminal law issues in relation to genetics.

A UC alumna, Wilson joined UC’s Law School in 2010 after gaining her PhD from Monash University in Australia. Her PhD thesis, arguing in favour of human cloning from a legal standpoint, won the Mollie Holman Doctoral Medal for the best thesis submitted that year.


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