Can an imaginary gene keep you behind bars?

Nearly every day, it seems, you read about the discovery of a gene for genius, for obesity, for voting conservative, for cancer, for chocaholism, for alcoholism, whatever. Scientists’ bombastic press releases are taken reasonably seriously by glossy women’s magazines and hucksters selling genetic testing kits, if not by their colleagues.

But has it ever happened that an undiscovered gene is taken seriously? This would turn genetics into a quasi-religious faith based on nothing more serious than the glossy women’s magazines. But it did happen and it nearly meant a longer jail sentence for a man convicted of possessing child pornography.

The New York Times reports that a Federal District Court judge in Albany, NY, spurned reports that a man was “at a low to moderate risk to reoffend” because, in his opinion, he had a yet-undiscovered child-porn-viewing gene. He handed down a severe 6 and a half year sentence plus a life term of supervision thereafter. The expected sentence was about 5 years.

The judge, Gary L. Sharpe told the defendant, “It is a gene you were born with. And it’s not a gene you can get rid of”. Nor did Judge Sharpe need evidence for his genetic theory -- because he was sure that it would be discovered within 50 years. The “opinions of the psychologists and the psychiatrists as to what harm you may pose to those children in the future is virtually worthless here”.

“You are what you’re born with. And that’s the only explanation for what I see here,” the judge said.

However, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has quashed the sentence. “It would be impermissible for the court to base its decision of recidivism on its unsupported theory of genetics.” They declared that a sentence relying on findings not supported in the record “seriously affects the fairness, integrity and public reputation of judicial proceedings.”

If a Federal Court judge believes so strongly in the power of imaginary genes that he is willing to throw people in the slammer, what about the man in the street? It looks as though genetic determinism has a bright future. ~ Biopolitical Times, Feb 2; New York Times, Jan 28

This article is published by Michael Cook and BioEdge.org under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

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