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Psychol Public Policy Law. 2015 May;21(2):134-144.

Effects of Behavioral Genetic Evidence on Perceptions of Criminal Responsibility and Appropriate Punishment.

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Department of Psychiatry, Columbia University Medical Center, 1051 Riverside Drive, Unit 122, New York, NY 10032; 646-774-8630; .
School of Social Ecology, University of California at Irvine; 949-824-4046; .
Department of Psychiatry, Columbia University Medical Center; (347) 831-3575; .


Demonstrations of a link between genetic variants and criminal behavior have stimulated increasing use of genetic evidence to reduce perceptions of defendants' responsibility for criminal behavior and to mitigate punishment. However, because only limited data exist regarding the impact of such evidence on decision makers and the public at large, we recruited a representative sample of the U.S. adult population (n=960) for a web-based survey. Participants were presented with descriptions of three legal cases and were asked to: determine the length of incarceration for a convicted murderer; adjudicate an insanity defense; and decide whether a defendant should receive the death penalty. A fully crossed, between-participants, factorial design was used, varying the type of evidence (none, genetic, neuroimaging, both), heinousness of the crime, and past criminal record, with sentence or verdict as the primary outcome. Also assessed were participants' apprehension of the defendant, belief in free will, political ideology, and genetic knowledge. Across all three cases, genetic evidence had no significant effects on outcomes. Neuroimaging data showed an inconsistent effect in one of the two cases in which it was introduced. In contrast, heinousness of the offense and past criminal record were strongly related to participants' decisions. Moreover, participants' beliefs about the controllability of criminal behavior and political orientations were significantly associated with their choices. Our findings suggest that neither hopes that genetic evidence will modify judgments of culpability and punishment nor fears about the impact of genetic evidence on decision makers are likely to come to fruition.


genetic evidence; insanity defense; mitigation; neuroimaging evidence; sentencing

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