Biology gives American psychopaths a legal break

Thu Aug 16, 2012 2:02pm EDT
 
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By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) - 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, according to new research.

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.

Seena Fazel, a clinical senior lecturer in forensic psychiatry at Britain's Oxford University, noted there are already known biological bases for many disorders criminals suffer from, including drug abuse, alcoholism and antisocial personality disorder.

"So if psychopathy reduces your sentence because it has a biological basis, why shouldn't these other more common conditions also result in reduced sentences?" he said.

MITIGATING FACTOR

The Utah team carried out a survey of 181 judges in 19 U.S. states who were given a hypothetical case of aggravated battery to consider. They found that when judges were given a "biomechanical" explanation for a criminal's psychopathy, they saw this as a mitigating factor and reduced the sentence, on average by about a year.   Continued...