Italian murderer’s sentence reduced after brain scans

For the second time in two years an Italian court has reduced the sentence of a convicted murderer because of abnormal brain scans.  In 2009 28-year-old Stefania Albertani pleaded guilty to murdering her sister by force-feeding her with psychotropic drugs, burning her body, and later attempting to murder her mother. She was sentenced to 30 years imprisonment.

Psychiatrists gave conflicting reports on Albertani’s sanity, who was said to be completely rational while committing the crime. But earlier this month, a judge in Como, near Milan, reduced her sentence to 20 years after accepting evidence from VBM (Voxel Based Morphometry), a neuroimaging analysis technique,* that she had diminished grey matter in the anterior cingulate gyrus (which has been linked to diminished behaviour inhibition) and the insula (which has been linked to increased aggression). She also took into account low MAOA gene activity due to the presence of the so-called warrior gene. She ruled that these statistical abnormalities had made Albertani “partially mentally ill”.

The judge declared that these tests were more “more reliant on objectivity and evidence” than those based on a traditional clinical approach. One of the doctors who presented evidence, Pietro Pietrini, a molecular geneticist and psychiatrist at the University of Pisa told Nature: “Neuroscientific means can already help in assessing mental illness and can be used in forensic science to help reduce subjective variability, without leading us to determinism”.

The case puzzled American lawyers and bioethicists. “The idea of sentence reductions for “partial mental illness” seems strange to me,” wrote Hank Greely, of Stanford University. “Despite many advances in the neuroscience of mental disorder and other psychological issues, for the law’s purposes, so far they add little to the behavioral analysis”, Stephen Morse, of the University of Pennsylvania, told Nature. ~ BMJ, Sept 9; Nature blog, Sept 1

* CORRECTED. Our thanks to Barbara Bottalico

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