My Genes Did It!

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Deborah Denno quoted in Newsweek about the trial of Rene Patrick Bourassa Jr and the question of moral culpability that arose during the trial: not whether Bourassa had committed murder; but whether his brain made him do it.

The criminal justice system is based on responsibility: For someone to be convicted of a crime, it has to be shown they were consciously aware of what they did, when they did it. The problem, according to Deborah Denno, a professor at the Fordham University School of Law, is that almost all 50 states still define consciousness based on what’s in the Model Penal Code – a document published by the American Law Institute (ALI) in 1962, and derived almost entirely from Freudian texts.

But as the fields of genetics and neurosciences have advanced, so has our understanding of human behavior: It is now thought that, instead of there being a clear line between conscious and unconscious processes, a fluid interplay exists between the two sides. “People don’t have the degree of control over their behavior that we thought,” Denno tells Newsweek. “That doesn’t mean to suggest that there’s no control over their behavior – but that some of us have higher hurdles than others.”

But then again, judges in the past were never expected to undertake studies in courses of psychoanalysis or moral philosophy. And now, in 2014, instead of just listening to psychiatrists hold court, judges and juries are seeing brain scans and genetic sequences – concrete, visible evidence. “It’s changing the landscape of the criminal justice system,” argues Denno. “It’s making it much more transparent and keeping experts honest.”

Read the entire Newsweek article.

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