Researchers say the propensity to commit crimes may be down to a person’s genes

J. Bradley Smith of Arnold & Smith, PLLC answers the question “Can I be arrested without evidence against me?”


Researchers in Stockholm, Sweden have published findings that appear to show a link between two genetic mutations and a propensity to commit violent criminal acts.

DNA Structure Charlotte DWI Lawyer North Carolina Criminal AttorneyThe researchers studied the DNA of 800 Finnish criminals and compared it with 2,000 non-incarcerated Finns who had given DNA samples for a previous study. The researchers found that the two genetic mutations rendered individuals 13-times more likely than the general population to commit a violent crimes. The study did not draw a causal link between the mutations and violent crime.

Researchers hope the information is valuable to “offenders who want to break their cycle of repetitive violence.”

The study’s lead author, Dr. Jari Tiihonen, said researchers found that offenders with one of the two mutations experienced marked spikes in dopamine whenever they consumed drugs or alcohol, which could have fueled criminal activity.

Tiihonen suggested, for instance, that in addition to traditional forms of criminal punishment, offenders with certain genetic mutations could be administered drugs while incarcerated that “make it impossible… to use alcohol anymore… given the medication’s ability to make drinking unpleasant and distasteful.”

The study is part of a larger effort to show how genetic information can be used to increase the effectiveness of rehabilitation of criminal offenders.


Rehabilitative punishment a relatively new concept

Rehabilitation of criminal offenders is—at least in mankind’s several-millennia-old legal systems—a new concept. Most criminals have been subject to retributive justice, or a form of “an eye for an eye” justice that dates all the way back to Hammurabi.

For centuries, legal experts have wrestled with the philosophical underpinnings of crime and criminal punishment, studying not only the most effective means of punishing and rehabilitating offenders but also seeking to deter future crimes through retributive justice and by learning about the roles that personality, culture and society play in the commission of crimes.

It may come as a surprise to some, but in the not-too-distant past, criminal prosecution and punishment featured few of the procedural and substantive safeguards that criminal defendants enjoy today.

Even criminal defendants who lacked the capacity to understand that their acts were “wrong” were routinely prosecuted, punished and even executed.


Animals, bugs tried and punished in courts of law

In a town in Normandy in what is now northern France, in 1386, villagers strung a pig dressed in a jacket and short trousers up on a gallows in the town’s market square.

An illustration of the pig’s execution adorns the cover of E. P. Evans’ 1906 book The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals. Evans’ book is a fascinating read, chronicling the prosecution of beasts—and bugs—from antiquity through the mid-19th Century.

That may seem like foolishness to the modern reader, but animals—like humans—frequently commit “forbidden acts.” Forbidden acts—or acts that are “against the law”—are generally considered crimes. If animals commit crimes, why aren’t they prosecuted anymore?

Animals are not prosecuted for crimes because they lack the mental capacity to understand that their behavior is forbidden. As human beings have through research and study developed a wider understanding of the human brain, we have at the same time begun to appreciate the gulf between the processes of our cranial organ and that of our earthly counterparts.


The development of criminal “soundness of mind” legal doctrines

Western societies stopped prosecuting animals for crimes around the same time the so-called “insanity defense” developed.

The defense grew out of a rule developed in a famous 1843 murder in Great Britain. In that case, an Englishman named Daniel McNaughton murdered the secretary of the British Prime Minister. The reason? The Prime Minister, McNaughton believed, was conspiring against him.

Of course, the Prime Minister was not conspiring against McNaughton—he did not even know who the man was. Instead, McNaughton’s attorney argued, McNaughton was insane. Since he was insane, he could not be found guilty of murder. He did not have the capacity to appreciate that his act was forbidden by the law.

Since McNaughton, the insanity defense has become well-known in our culture. Aside from its frequent use in criminal cases, the defense has been featured in countless onscreen crime and courtroom dramas.

The notoriety of the insanity defense demonstrates that most people in our society understand that in order to be held liable for a crime, in general one must be aware that an act is or was forbidden.


Using genes to stop crimes before they happen is still science fiction

The latest studies on criminal psychology focus less on capacity and more on propensity—or a person’s tendency to commit crimes.

Kevin Beaver, a professor in the College of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida State University, said the Tiihonen study may provide some important insight “into the genetic architecture” of extreme forms of violent behavior.

He said it would be interesting to study how environmental factors dampen or exacerbate the effects of the genetic mutations in different individuals.

Tiihonen cautioned that the scientific community is far from reaching the point at which some citizens are “genetically pegged as trouble long before a crime has even been committed.” Tiihonen said the “sensitivity and specificity” of his study is too low for screening and prevention of crimes and criminals.

Arnold & Smith, PLLC is a Charlotte based criminal defense, traffic violation defense and civil litigation law firm servicing Charlotte and the surrounding area. If you or someone you know need legal assistance, please contact Arnold & Smith, PLLC today at (704) 370-2828   or find additional resources here.



About the Author

jbradley.jpgBrad Smith is a Managing Member of Arnold & Smith, PLLC, where he focuses on the areas of criminal defense, DUI / DWI defense and traffic defense.

Mr. Smith was born and raised in Charlotte. He began his legal career as an Assistant District Attorney before entering private practice in 2006.

In his free time, Mr. Smith enjoys traveling, boating, golf, hiking and spending time with his wife and three children.






Image Credit

Illustration by Madeleine Price Ball



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