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Judging Molecular Biology of Murder, Addictive Disorders, and Dementia
Neurobehavioral Genetics Training Course for Judges
Sixty learners stare at cross-section images of living brains projected on the screen at Airlie Conference Center, an hour out of Washington in Northern Virginias rolling horse country. Drawn to a specialized 3-day training program on neurobehavioral genetics, they strain to find red and white spots indicating mental activity. As they search intently for dark stretches of turned-off brain segments, they might be mistaken for participants in a medical schools clinical seminar. But these are judges absorbed in the speakers rapid, precise language as she points out image slices of brains from murderers, cocaine addicts, demented elderly persons, and gunshot victims.
Todays judges are beginning to view defendants and plaintiffs in a new light while presiding over some 15million cases a year in the nations state and federal courts, where they are accustomed to observing behavior and its results. At the conference, they peer into genotypes and phenotypes linked to behavior they will find on their dockets upon their return home. For most, it is an opportunity to assess scientific progress in discovering causes of violence, addictions, and dementia. They are able to compare clues from neuroscience with those from genetic and behavioral development.
Among 22 science advisors at Airlie, the judges guide is Nora Volkow, Brookhaven National Laboratorys brain-mapping expert. Sacrificing a holiday weekend in aid of the courts, she has joined her colleaguesbasic and clinical scientists, psychiatrists, and psychologiststo paint a landscape of molecular and organic knowledge. In the past 3years, more than 250 neutral and independent scientists have served as advisors for Genetics in the Courtroom conferences sponsored nationwide by the Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications component of DOEs Human Genome Program. These courses were conceived and are carried out by Franklin Zweig and his colleagues at the Einstein Institute for Science, Health, and the Courts (EINSHAC).
Each scientific expert has participated in one or more workshops to prepare judges for the testimony of nonneutral experts in cases involving genetics. To date, 1900 jurists have participated, and another thousand are expected next year. Subject matter ranges from basic molecular biology to advanced biotechnology to briefings about policy.
At this meeting on behavioral genetics, an advanced offering, the jurists attention ratchets up as Volkow and others project photos of brains plagued by chronic alcoholism. All the justices have attended the basic course, so they have a grasp of DNA structure and function, the nature of genes, and the fundamental dynamics of protein production. They strive for something morethe link between genetic predisposition or susceptibility and the trouble-causing conduct they see every day. They monitor current scientific developments, hoping for the day when alcoholisms root causes are known and judges can direct defendants to effective treatments. At Airlie, the judges are exposed to the connections (and the disconnects) between underlying causation and behavior. The disconnects dominate in alcoholisms case, but jurists agree that breakthroughs are so rapid that the next one might be valid and could be introduced in one of their cases.
The judiciary appears to share a general belief that biological inheritance fuels generations of cases involving violence, alcohol, drugs, and family breakdown. They are urged by lawyers to use their authority to protect the mentally ill, and they intuit that the schizophrenia and bipolar illnesses frequently appearing in their courtrooms are, at least in part, forged by genetics gone wrong.
On the conferences final day, the discussion turns from science to its implications for judicial management. The judges are looking to the time when molecular medicine will make possible the substitution of effective treatment for long jail sentences. One speaker warns against blaming biology for behavior, but the judges are more concerned about having insufficient tools against a tidal wave of challenges. They also worry that their Airlie advisors are not typical of an expert-witness industry bent on made-for-litigation research, experts who have a biased stake in case outcomes.
Conference cochairmen summarize sentiments near the meetings close. We need at least a coherent state of the science merged with new developments in the law, Chief Judge Eugene N. Hamilton declares. Judge John Garrett Penn rejoins, We need a legal guide to the scientific landscape facing federal judges. The meeting ends, but its work continues. [Franklin M. Zweig, Einstein Institute for Science, Health, and the Courts]
Genes and Justice
The Genes and Justice symposium issue of Judicature 83(3), the journal of the American Judicature Society, focuses on the growing societal impact of DNA technology and related issues that courts will confront in the near future. The DOE Human Genome Program's Ethical, Legal, and Social Issues component contributed to the publication of this issue and its distribution to judges nationwide. Denise Casey (HGMIS) served as its editor.
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Last modified: Thursday, November 20, 2003
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