Murderer With "Violent Genes" Gets Lighter Sentence in Italian Court

By Eliza Strickland | November 3, 2009 3:17 pm

DNA-genetic-testIn an Italian court, a murderer has just had his sentence reduced because the judge agreed that the man’s genes predisposed him to violent behavior.

Abdelmalek Bayout, an Algerian immigrant to Italy, admitted to stabbing and killing Walter Felipe Novoa Perez, a Colombian, when the two men got in a fight over the kohl eye make-up that Bayout was wearing. At trial, the defense team argued that Bayout was mentally ill at the time of the murder; the judge agreed that his psychiatric condition was a mitigating factor, and gave him a reduced sentence of 9 years. But at an appeal hearing, Bayout’s lawyers argued that his sentence should be shortened further based not just on psychiatric evaluations, but also brain scans and genetic testing.

Pietro Pietrini, a molecular neuroscientist who worked on the new evaluations, explains that the brain scans showed abnormalities, and the genetic test revealed irregularities in five genes that have been linked to aggressive behavior. One of those genes codes for an enzyme called MAOA, which helps control the levels of certain brain chemicals. Previous studies have found low levels of MAOA expression to be associated with aggressiveness and criminal conduct of young boys raised in abusive environments. In the report, [the researchers] concluded that Bayout’s genes would make him more prone to behaving violently if provoked. “There’s increasing evidence that some genes together with a particular environmental insult may predispose people to certain behaviour,” says Pietrini [Nature News].

Based on this evidence, the appeals court judge knocked another year off of Bayout’s sentence. But many scientists say that singling out a few genes from a person’s vast genome tells you very little about their complete biochemical makeup. In addition to questions of the genetic tests’ scientific relevance, bioethics experts also say that our society hasn’t yet decided to what extent criminal behavior can be excused by biology.

Some worry that cases like Bayout’s could lead to the acceptance of genetic determinism — the idea that genes determine the behaviour of an organism — in criminal cases. “90% of all murders are committed by people with a Y chromosome — males. Should we always give males a shorter sentence?” says geneticist Steve Jones [Nature News]. Others note that from such a legal precedent, it’s a small step towards preemptively labeling someone “bad” because of their genes. Gattica, anyone?

Related Content:
80beats: Think DNA Evidence Can’t Be Faked? Think Again.
80beats: DNA Sampling of Innocent-Until-Proven-Guilty People Is on the Rise
80beats: For the Greater Good, Ten Pioneers Will Post Their Genomes on the Internet

Image: iStockphoto

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Feature, Health & Medicine
  • bigjohn756

    Great logic! If the guy’s genes predispose him to violence then let him out earlier so he can get busy killing people again.

  • bharath

    and are there genes which make people prone to getting murdered?

  • secularist10

    Excellent point by bigjohn…if anything, the genetic argument should be a basis for limiting such a person’s freedom. I do think that at some point in the future, science will allow us to more precisely and completely understand just how a given individual’s actions are determined by their genes, how much by environment, how much a combination thereof, and how much free will.

    Bharath, maybe Palestinian and Israeli genes?

  • Billy

    Why does the judge think that sentences should be shortened for those who were predisposed to commit the crime, as opposed to lengthened for those who were *not* predisposed to commit the crime? If the majority of crimes are committed by those who were predisposed to commit them, this would have the effect of shortening sentences across the board.

  • Sam

    That is sick! let go a murderer bearing in mind that murderer is proned to killing. What on earth are they thinking!!

    Another point is that now we can identify behavior genes, if the genes are examined at the point of being born, could that help providing a better upbringing for the child that suit specific straits?

  • K

    I think that the idea is interesting if, instead of reducing the sentence, measures were taken to help rehabilitate those that are especially prone to violent behavior. Just because there’s something in our genes that may predispose us to certain things, I believe it is important not to forget that the environment will play a big role in how those genes are expressed, or NOT expressed. Perhaps the majority of the people who have these violent predispositions end up in prison. It seems like prisons teach the lesson “don’t get caught next time” instead teaching a person how to cope with violent or other criminal tendencies. If we release people from prison who are well adjusted, maybe the rest of society will feel more comfortable accepting the person back into the community.

  • groverpm

    Now, what example from history can we use to show how good locking people up simply because of their genetic make-up is? Arbeit macht frei, eh bigjohn and secularist10.

  • Liz

    Why is it more excusable for someone with violent genes to commit a crime than it is for someone without violent genes to commit a crime due to unfortunate past experiences? Neither factors are directly under the criminal’s control. People make the assumption that the second type of criminal should be capable of exercising more responsibility than the first type, but they both have to control things that are acting upon their minds. Many people who have abusive past experiences do not become violent later, but many people with violent genes also do not become violent. Having both violent genes and an abusive environment together also does not guarantee that a person will become a criminal.

    People should always be held accountable for their actions. If society in general accepts genetic determinism, that takes away people’s motivation to control their problematic impulses.

  • Angie

    There is no direct link between unfortunate past experiences and criminal acts committed by an individual. Certain people were spoilt rotten by some of their family members and yet decided to be criminals. There are also people, who went through several kinds of hell and decided not to commit crimes. Adults make their own choices on whether they want to commit crimes or not. This also has nothing whatsoever to do with a person´s genes. Genes don´t make it impossible to make your own decisions, even violent ones. This man wasn´t retarded after all, or was he?


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.

See More

Collapse bottom bar