Criminal Responsibility and Genetics


What potential influence would a genetic predisposition to crime have on traditional, moral and legal accounts of responsibility? What do we mean by crime? Is there any truth in the claims that genetics may predispose some individuals to criminal activity? And what about the most serious of criminal activity, homicide? Could a genetic defence affect conviction or sentencing? Does this evidence, and should it affect jurors' perceptions of guilt and innocence? What, if anything, does genetic evidence say about how we determine risk, punishment and moral responsibility? This article addresses these questions by exploring some of the legal cases that have attempted to use genetic evidence as mitigation in homicide trials. The authors conclude that despite advances in genetic science and attempts to forward genetic defences, our key understanding of legal and moral responsibility remains unchanged.

Key Concepts

  • Criminal, antisocial and violent activity are not synonymous terms.
  • There is no evidence for a ‘criminal gene’.
  • There is a question regarding the usefulness of evidence of genetic predispositions to violent criminal activity.
  • The role of genetic evidence in mitigation against homicide is limited and unsuccessful.
  • Genetic defence evidence may impact upon jurors' perceptions of guilt or length of sentence.
  • The quest to find a scientific answer to the question of what causes violent criminal activity may result from the desire to find ways of preventing this activity.
  • Science cannot determine whether an individual is morally responsible for his/her actions.

Keywords: criminal/antisocial behaviour; genetic determinism; free will; responsibility; law; homicide


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Bostock, Jennifer, and Adshead, Gwen(Nov 2016) Criminal Responsibility and Genetics. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0005194.pub2]