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Biology May Give Criminal Psychopaths a Break

Biology Gives Criminal Psychopaths a Break A new study has found that if a convicted criminal is a psychopath, judges will consider it a factor in sentencing — often giving the person a reduced sentence if there is a biological explanation for the disorder.

Researchers at the University of Utah say their findings illustrate a “double-edged sword” faced by judges when they are given a “biomechanical” explanation for a criminal’s mental disorder: If a criminal’s behavior has a biological basis, is that reason to reduce the sentence because defective genes or brain function leave the criminal with less self-control and ability to tell right from wrong? Or is it reason for a harsher sentence because the criminal is likely to reoffend?

In a nationwide sample of judges, the researchers found that expert testimony concerning the biological causes of psychopathy reduced sentencing from almost 14 years to less than 13 years, according to study coauthor Dr. James Tabery, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Utah.

The anonymous online survey asked judges to read a scenario, based on a real Georgia case, about a psychopath convicted of aggravated battery for savagely beating a store clerk with a gun during a robbery attempt.

The judges were then asked to answer a series of questions, including whether they consider scientific evidence of psychopathy to be an aggravating or mitigating factor that would affect sentencing and what sentence they would impose.

The judges were also told the criminal’s psychopathy is incurable and treatment wasn’t an option.

While psychopathy isn’t yet a formal diagnosis in the manual used by psychiatrists, it soon may be added as a category of antisocial personality disorder, according to Tabery.

The study cited an expert definition of psychopathy as “a clinical diagnosis defined by impulsivity; irresponsibility; shallow emotions; lack of empathy, guilt or remorse; pathological lying; manipulation; superficial charm; and the persistent violation of social norms and expectations.”

The researchers initially recruited 207 state trial court judges for the study. Six dropped out. Another 20 were excluded because they incorrectly identified the defendant’s diagnosis. That left 181 judges who correctly identified the defendant as a psychopath, including 164 who gave complete data on their sentencing decisions.

The judges were randomly divided into four groups. All the judges read scientific evidence that the convicted criminal was a psychopath and what that means, but only half were given evidence about the genetic and neurobiological causes of the condition.

Half the judges in each group got the scientific evidence from the defense, which argued it should mitigate or reduce the sentence, and half the judges got the evidence from the prosecution, which argued it should aggravate or increase the sentence.

Judges who were given a biological explanation for the convict’s psychopathy imposed sentences averaging 12.83 years.

This was more than a year less than the 13.93-year average sentence imposed by judges who were told only that the defendant was a psychopath, but didn’t receive a biological explanation for the condition.

In both cases, however, sentencing for the psychopath was longer than the judges’ normal nine-year average sentence for aggravated battery.

Even though a year reduction in sentencing may not seem like much, the researchers “were amazed the sentence was reduced at all given that we’re dealing with psychopaths, who are very unsympathetic,” said Dr. Teneille Brown, an associate professor at the university’s S.J. Quinney College of Law, who participated in the study.

“In the coming years, we are likely to find out about all kinds of biological causes of criminal behavior, so the question is, why does the law care if most behavior is biologically caused?” Brown asked.

“That’s what is so striking about finding these results in psychopaths, because we’re likely to see an even sharper reduction in sentencing of defendants with a more sympathetic diagnosis, such as mental retardation.”

Source: The University of Utah

Judge photo by shutterstock.

Biology May Give Criminal Psychopaths a Break

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). Biology May Give Criminal Psychopaths a Break. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 26, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 17 Aug 2012)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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