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November 8, 2009

"Lighter sentence for murderer with 'bad genes'"

The title of this post is the headline of this interesting sentencing story coming from the publication Nature, which reports on these sentencing developments in Italy:

An Italian court has cut the sentence given to a convicted murderer by a year because he has genes linked to violent behaviour — the first time that behavioural genetics has affected a sentence passed by a European court.  But researchers contacted by Nature have questioned whether the decision was based on sound science.

Abdelmalek Bayout, an Algerian citizen who has lived in Italy since 1993, admitted in 2007 to stabbing and killing Walter Felipe Novoa Perez on 10 March.  Perez, a Colombian living in Italy, had, according to Bayout's testimony, insulted him over the kohl eye make-up the Algerian was wearing.  Bayout, a Muslim, claims he wore the make-up for religious reasons.

During the trial, Bayout's lawyer, Tania Cattarossi, asked the court to take into account that her client may have been mentally ill at the time of the murder.  After considering three psychiatric reports, the judge, Paolo Alessio Vernì, partially agreed that Bayout's psychiatric illness was a mitigating factor and sentenced him to 9 years and 2 months in prison — around three years less than Bayout would have received had he been deemed to be of sound mind.

But at an appeal hearing in May this year, Pier Valerio Reinotti, a judge of the Court of Appeal in Trieste, asked forensic scientists for a new independent psychiatric report to decide whether he should commute the sentence further.

For the new report, Pietro Pietrini, a molecular neuroscientist at Italy's University of Pisa, and Giuseppe Sartori, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Padova, conducted a series of tests and found abnormalities in brain-imaging scans and in five genes that have been linked to violent behaviour — including the gene encoding the neurotransmitter-metabolizing enzyme monoamine oxidase A (MAOA).  A 2002 study led by Terrie Moffitt, a geneticist at the Institute of Psychiatry, King's College, London, had found low levels of MAOA expression to be associated with aggressiveness and criminal conduct of young boys raised in abusive environments.

In the report, Pietrini and Sartori 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.

On the basis of the genetic tests, Judge Reinotti docked a further year off the defendant's sentence, arguing that the defendant's genes "would make him particularly aggressive in stressful situations".  Giving his verdict, Reinotti said he had found the MAOA evidence particularly compelling....

But forensic scientists and geneticists contacted by Nature question whether the scientific evidence supports the conclusions reached in the psychiatric report presented to Judge Reinotti.  "We don't know how the whole genome functions and the [possible] protective effects of other genes," says Giuseppe Novelli, a forensic scientist and geneticist at the University Tor Vergata in Rome.  Tests for single genes such as MAOA are "useless and expensive", he adds.

November 8, 2009 at 09:32 AM | Permalink

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Such a gene warrants permanent incapacitation. If on the left, such a gene warrants being loosed to generate massive government make work from the resulting damage.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Nov 8, 2009 10:01:55 AM

If on the left in the US, enact an amendment to the ADAAA, and exempt him from any prison. In fact, give him a handicapped parking tag, and Social Security disability checks.

Here is a news flash. All behavior has a genetic basis The consequences of behavior are remedies until genetic engineering develops well enough. According to disability supremacists, this prisoner is really, otherwise abled and should not be treated. Until that time, prison is the best treatment. To not give him long prison sentences is to deprive him of the best treatment.

Flip this genetic coin to the obverse. Prof. Berman is genetically gifted law prof. Because of his genetic makeup, he does not deserve a salary triple the of ordinary law profs. Deduct $100K for genetics.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Nov 8, 2009 10:12:20 AM

SC. Your missing the entire point. They forget to test the victim to see if he had genes that prevented him for resisting violence in a reasonable manner. Seriously, what kind of totally messed up genes must that victim had to die from a knife wound. Why is the so called murderer to blame for the fact that the victim had the genes of a pansy. If one is so weak that one gets killed it's one's own damn fault.

Posted by: Daniel | Nov 8, 2009 10:41:57 AM

Half of crime victims are drunk or high. Sentences lightened by genetic evidence should be enhanced by hate crime element against the disabled victim. Go to Section iv) and read backwards a little.

28 C.F.R. § 36.104 (“The phrase physical or mental impairment means -- (i) Any physiological disorder or
condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one or more of the following bodily systems:
neurological; musculoskeletal; special sense organs; respiratory, including speech organs; cardiovascular;
reproductive; digestive; genitourinary; hemic and lymphatic; skin; and endocrine; (ii) Any mental or psychological
disorder such as mental retardation, organic brain syndrome, emotional or mental illness, and specific learning
disabilities; (iii) The phrase physical or mental impairment includes, but is not limited to, such contagious and
noncontagious diseases and conditions as orthopedic, visual, speech, and hearing impairments, cerebral palsy,
epilepsy, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, mental retardation, emotional
illness, specific learning disabilities, HIV disease (whether symptomatic or asymptomatic), tuberculosis, drug
addiction, and alcoholism;(iv) The phrase physical or mental impairment does not include homosexuality or
bisexuality.”)

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Nov 8, 2009 11:27:58 AM

I too would think someone prone to such actions should get a harder sentence not lighter. If he is really incapable of controlling himself the only thing left is to keep him away from society.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Nov 8, 2009 11:47:36 AM

This opens the door to genocide and eugenics.

Posted by: George | Nov 8, 2009 11:52:43 AM

This is a note from the two court experts (Pietro Pietrini, Professor of molecular neuroscience from the University of Pisa and Giuseppe Sartori, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience from the University of Padova) involved in the Bayout case in Italy.
(see Nature news: ttp://www.nature.com/news/2009/091030/full/news.2009.1050.html)

No es mi culpa: son mis genes
Bad genes get a ligther sentence
Strafmilderung wegen "schlechter Gene"
The "DNA Pardon": Murder sentence genetically reduced
Un juge italien découvre le gène du meutre


These titles, used to summarise a decision from an Italian Criminal Court on a case of "diminuished capacity" due to psychiatric problems, are ill-posed and do not represent the core issue of this forensic case. Nowhere in our report or in the judge decision it is claimed a causal link between genes and criminal behaviour.

Dimisnuished responsibility was proved by a casual link (required by Italian criminal law) between a pathological mental state and and the criminal behaviour. The crime (homicide) resulted to be a symptom of the undelying psychiatric disorder. The defendant had a reduced capacity to "do otherwise" due to his mental illness.

Given that psychiatric symptoms may be easily faked as they are mostly based on the defendant's verbal report, the objectivisation of the "disease of the mind" is therefore critical. Evidence that the psychiatric phenomenology causally linked to the crime has a "hard" neural basis was investigated using neuropsychological assessment, MRI and fMRI (using the stop-signal as activation task) and molecular genetics. Cognitive and molecular neurosciences were not used to causally explain the crime but to instrumentally prove the "hard" correlates of the mental illness which symtpoms are causally linked to the crime.

We have found that the psychosis was also accompanied by other severe cognitive disorders, by a dysfunctional frontal lobe and a sfavorable genetics. We have assessed the defendant, previously evaluated only with a psychiatric interview, also with a full neuropsychological, imaging (morphological and functional) and genetic evaluation. The psychiatric interview may be may be easily faked by the defendant and it has a unsatisfacory inter-rated concordance. Neuroscience methods may, therefore, be used to better picture the "disease of mind" but can say nothing, contrary to what seems attributed to us, about the direct proximal causal link with the crime.The symptoms which, by incontrovertible evidence, are linked to the crime are a fully blown untreated psychotic state characterised by delusions of persecuzione, lowIQ, a very poor "theory of mind", and control of impulse. THESE ARE THE DIRECT CAUSES OF THE CRIME NOT THE BRAIN OR THE GENETIC.

In order to better characterise the required "disease of the mind" there is the legal requirement to show that the disease has a biological basis.Altered brain functioning in controlling behaviour and genetics are the required biological markers of the "disease of the mind". The only methods that can respond to this requirements are the methods of neuroscience that we have applied. THE CRITICAL ISSUE IS WHETHER THERE ARE BETTER TECHNIQUES, TO ADDRESS THIS ISSUES OTHER THAN THE ONE USED BY US? WE BELIEVE THE RESPONSE IS NO.

As regards to moleculasr genetics, we sequenced 5HTTLPR, STin2 – VNTR (Variable Number of Tandem Repeats) , rs4680, MAOA, DRD4-1/7. Results showed that for each of the examined genes the Defendant had one or both the alleles found to be significantly associated with aggressive and violent behavior.In our specific case, as I said above, for each of the candidate genes examined the subject had one or even both the alleles associated with a significantly greater risk for abnormal aggression, impulsivity and violence. This is a very sensitive issue and there is a need to be absolutely clear. To date there is NO indication of any DETERMINISTIC effect, that is, there is no genetic variant that determines abnormally aggressive behavior (no cause-effect relationship). What the studies reported in the literature have shown is that possessing one or more specific allele(s) is associated with a significantly greater probability of having abnormal aggressive behavior. That is, possessing such a variant is neither necessary nor sufficient to have abnormal aggressive behavior. However, the incidence of individuals with abnormal aggressive behavior is significantly greater in the group of people with such a variant than in the group without.

It is important to clarify that results from association studies have shown that possessing one or more of these genetic variants makes the individual more vulnerable to the effects of an unfavourable environment, such as childhood abuse and maltreatment or social exclusion (see for instance Caspi et al., Science, 2002; Eisenberger et al., Biol Psychiatry, 2006). Indeed, some of these environmental features were present in the case of our Proband.

In no way the conclusions reported in our evaluation of the defendant can be interpreted in a way that denies free will in favour of a genetic determinism (“I did not do it, my genes made me do it”, like a couple of newspaper titled). Indeed, our conclusion was based on the whole evaluation of the defendant, who showed a limited cognitive development (IQ= 70), a history of psychotic disorder with delusional ideation, a history of social exclusion, abnormal performance on cognitive testing for impulse control, abnormal pattern of brain activity in response to inhibition tasks and, finally, a genetic background associated with a statistically significant higher risk of impulsivity and aggressive behavior, especially in response to provocation. Considered each and all these pieces of evidence, we concluded that the defendant at a greatly diminished capacity, which is the requisite by law for a judge to cut the sentence.


Skeptics say that behavioral genetics studies are mostly based on correlations in groups of people so these data is hardly applicable to single individuals. This is false logic. Such a statement, infact, applies to every aspect of medical science. What we mean is that there is no test in medicine that has a sensitivity nor a specificity of 100%. Not even for a diagnosis of hyperglicemia you can rely on a clear-cut reference value, simply because what we call “normal reference values” are obtained through a statistical evaluation of data collected from hundreds of subjects. Thus, such objections are a too simple way to disguise the question. Data are data. In medicine, there is increasing evidence showing that having certain genetic variants increases the susceptibility to certain disease or may affect the likelihood to respond to specific drug treatment. Oncologists already take into account the genetic features of their patients in deciding for the best treatment strategy. In neuroscience, genetic and molecular studies are offering a powerful tool to understand the complex interaction between genetic characteristics and environmental factors in shaping our personality and behavior. This is with no doubt a great step forward. We need to avoid oversimplification as well as mystification. The titles of some news reports I read about this case around the world are simply misleading and untrue. In no way the conclusions reported in our evaluation of the defendant can be interpreted in a way that denies free will in favour of a genetic determinism (“I did not do it, my genes made me do it”, like a couple of newspaper titled). Indeed, our conclusion was based on the whole evaluation of the defendant, who showed a limited cognitive development (IQ= 70), a history of psychotic disorder with delusional ideation, a history of social exclusion, abnormal performance on cognitive testing for impulse control, abnormal pattern of brain activity in response to inhibition tasks and, finally, a genetic background associated with a statistically significant higher risk of impulsivity and aggressive behavior, especially in response to provocation. Considered each and all these pieces of evidence, we concluded that the defendant at a greatly diminished capacity, which is the requisite by law for a judge to cut the sentence.

The Court recognised all these further data as more convincing than a previous court evaluation based solely on the clinical interview and applied the maximum sentence reduction for "diminuished capacity". This further reduction was worth 8 months.

Posted by: Giuseppe Sartori | Nov 22, 2009 6:10:29 AM

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