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Turning science fiction into legal reality: The impact of behavioral genetics and neuroscience on the law

Apr. 15, 2009, 11:59 AM

[Media Note: Vanderbilt has a 24/7 broadcast studio with a dedicated fiber optic line for TV interviews and a radio ISDN line. Click here to see an interview with Nita Farahany.]

A time could soon come when genetic tests and neurological brain scans are introduced as evidence in criminal trials as readily as DNA evidence is today.

That’s why, in a first-of-its-kind book titled The Impact of Behavioral Sciences on Criminal Law, Vanderbilt University assistant professor of law and philosophy Nita Farahany brought together experts across multiple disciplines, including geneticists, neuroscientists, philosophers, policymakers and legal scholars, to give cutting edge insight on this controversial and emerging field.

The experts discuss and debate the latest scientific advances in behavioral genetics and neuroscience, implications of doing this type of research and the impact behavioral genetics and neuroscience is having on the criminal justice system now and in the future.

“The experts in the book focus on the behavioral predispositions of individuals. For example, does a person have a genetic predisposition to addiction or violence or aggression or to impulse control problems? That kind of evidence, whether it comes from brain-based evidence through neuroscience or gene-based evidence through behavioral genetics or a combination of the two, is being used in criminal cases today,” said Farahany.

Another chapter discusses the concern by many philosophers that jurors will take genetic tests or brain scans as absolute fact and believe that a person’s genes can predict if he or she is going to be violent without taking into consideration one’s free will or control over their own behavior.

“There’s a concern that jurors believe all scientific evidence is objective and all other evidence is subjective,” said Farahany. “It feeds into what we call the ‘CSI’ effect.”

Farahany said that it’s only been within the last few years that behavioral genetics and neuroscience has truly impacted criminal trials.

“We’re now seeing this type of science have more of an impact in mitigating circumstances, such as deciding first to second degree murder or the death penalty,” said Farahany. “It’s also being used by the state to look at predictions of future dangerousness and denigration of the character of a criminal defendant.”

Farahany and the other experts also discuss what the future holds for this fast-changing science.

“I think much like DNA is used in every case today for identification purposes, I wouldn’t be surprised to see if 10 or 15 years from now, in nearly every criminal case, there is some sort of genetic predisposition or neuroscience predisposition evidence that is used in criminal cases,” said Farahany. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there was an expectation on the part of jurors that scientific information like this be used in most criminal cases, particularly violent ones.”

You can watch a full interview with Farahany talking about her book here or at www.vanderbilt.edu/authors/nitafarahany.

For more news on Vanderbilt Law School, go to www.law.vanderbilt.edu.

Media Contact: Amy Wolf, (615) 322-NEWS
amy.wolf@vanderbilt.edu

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