All this week, NPR is reporting on new genetic research to determine if some people have genes that make them kill people.
That is, if by “report” you mean shamelessly advocate and if by “genetic research” you mean paying expert witnesses to misrepresent academic findings in the courtroom.
In the subtly-titled “Can Your Genes Make You Murder?” reporter Barbara Bradley Hagerty answers: Why of course, yes, if it will get that poor man in the trailer park off from shooting his wife’s best friend eight times and then hacking up his wife with a machete, and to heck with him being drunk and just deciding to do it!
When the police arrived at Bradley Waldroup’s trailer home in the mountains of Tennessee, they found a war zone. There was blood on the walls, blood on the carpet, blood on the truck outside, even blood on the Bible that Waldroup had been reading before all hell broke loose.
Note the “all hell broke loose” sentence construction, as if it wasn’t Waldroup doing something, but that something beyond his control was acting on him. Like genes. Or hell-ghosts.
Or maybe he became a zombie.
In other words, it took a mere one and a half sentences for Ms. Hagerty to start singing the defense attorney’s refrain of diminished capacity.
Assistant District Attorney Drew Robinson says that on Oct. 16, 2006, Waldroup was waiting for his estranged wife to arrive with their four kids for the weekend. He had been drinking, and when his wife said she was leaving with her friend, Leslie Bradshaw, they began to fight. Soon, Waldroup had shot Bradshaw eight times and sliced her head open with a sharp object. When Waldroup was finished with her, he chased after his wife, Penny, with a machete, chopping off her finger and cutting her over and over.
Ordinarily, this would be a slam-dunk murder conviction. After all, it takes some time to pump eight bullets into an innocent woman and then tear around chopping up another one. But then, enter the “experts”:
[Defense attorney Wylie] Richardson says he realized that the testimony at trial would be “very graphic.” The defense team, he says, did not try to dismantle the graphic evidence but rather sought to “give a broader and fuller picture of what that was.” How to do that? The answer, it turned out, lay in Bradley Waldroup’s genes.
Wouldn’t that be “the defense said the answer lay in Bradley Waldroup’s genes”? No?
Immediately, Richardson went to forensic psychiatrist William Bernet of Vanderbilt University and asked him to give Waldroup a psychiatric evaluation. Bernet also took a blood sample and brought it to Vanderbilt’s Molecular Genetics Laboratory. Since 2004, Bernet and laboratory director Cindy Vnencak-Jones have been analyzing the DNA of people like Waldroup. They’ve tested some 30 criminal defendants, most of whom were charged with murder.
They’ve tested a whole 30 defendants since 2004.
They were looking for a particular variant of the MAO-A gene — also known as the warrior gene because it has been associated with violence. Bernet says they found that Waldroup has the high-risk version of the gene.
Oh no. Not only does the killer have the Warrior Gene, he’s got the High Risk Warrior Gene! And that’s not all.
“His genetic makeup, combined with his history of child abuse, together created a vulnerability that he would be a violent adult,” Bernet explains.
Remember when this used to be called phrenology?
You know, the discredited science of feeling people’s heads for things like “murder bumps” and promiscuity centers?
Boy, those Victorians sure were crazy. And prejudiced, because, of course, phrenologists got busy fast dividing mankind into superior and inferior groupings by doing things like measuring people’s foreheads and noses, and you know where that ended up.
Phrenology also made policing easier, because you could simply categorize people by their physical characteristics and not wait for them to actually do anything wrong before sending them to the poorhouse. Or Australia.
Thank goodness we’re far more advanced than those Victorians. Now we have experts convincing jurors that people can’t be held responsible for murders they actually did commit because their genes made them do it:
[Vanderbilt researcher William] Bernet cited scientific studies over the past decade that found that the combination of the high-risk gene and child abuse increases one’s chances of being convicted of a violent offense by more than 400 percent. He notes that other studies have not found a connection between the MAO-A gene and violence — but he told the jury that he felt the genes and childhood abuse were a dangerous cocktail. “A person doesn’t choose to have this particular gene or this particular genetic makeup,” Bernet says. “A person doesn’t choose to be abused as a child. So I think that should be taken into consideration when we’re talking about criminal responsibility.”
So, essentially, Bernet “feels” a non-proven connection between violence and a gene that non-murderers also possess ought to mitigate culpability for violent acts. Enough jurors bought this story:
[Juror] Debbie Beaty, says the science helped persuade her that Waldroup was not entirely in control of his actions. “Evidently it’s just something that doesn’t tick right,” Beaty says. “Some people without this would react totally different than he would.” And even though prosecutors tried to play down the genetic evidence, Beaty felt it was a major factor. “A diagnosis is a diagnosis, it’s there,” she says. “A bad gene is a bad gene.”
Well, thank you, Dr. Beaty.
After 11 hours of deliberation, the jury convicted Waldroup of voluntary manslaughter — not murder — and attempted second-degree murder. Prosecutor Drew Robinson was stunned. “I was just flabbergasted. I did not know how to react to it,” Robinson says. Nor did fellow prosecutor Cynthia Lecroy-Schemel. She worries that this sort of defense is the wave of the future. “Anything that defense attorneys can have to latch onto to save their client’s life or to lessen their client’s culpability, they will do it,” Lecroy-Schemel says. Waldroup’s attorney, Wylie Richardson, says she’s right. “I would use it again” under the right circumstances, he says. “It seemed to work in this case.”
It seemed to work in this case. There’s a scientific standard we can all be proud of.
NPR’s Three-Part Series, Inside the Criminal Brain