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What do we know about how judges and juries assess scientific evidence like genetics in court?

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And is it really as influential as some believe? Scientific evidence is typically introduced in conjunction with other factors — such as abuse a defendant suffered as a child Credit: Getty Images.

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Of course, generally speaking, it is difficult to know what influences a certain criminal sentence. What happens in court stays in court.

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Published records of proceedings are often incomplete. Even cases that are written up in detail are unlikely to reveal the effect that any one piece of evidence — including a genetic or neuroscientific diagnosis — has on the judge or jury. But even here, the NPR interviews with jurors suggested there was more going on. Genetic and neuroscientific evidence is typically introduced in conjunction with other factors — the abuse a defendant suffered as a child, for example, or their family history of social problems.

The jurors themselves may not even know, she adds. Since the courtroom itself is such a difficult environment in which to study the specific effects of genetic or neuroscientific evidence, some researchers are taking a different approach.

They have begun taking criminal cases out of the courtroom and into the lab. Lawyers can argue that their defendant has a genetic makeup that may predispose them to impulsive behaviour - whether this works as a defence is less clear Credit: Getty Images.

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Real courtrooms may not be typically swayed by neuroscientific evidence, either. The public may be more resistant to the allure of science in the courtroom than we once thought Credit: Getty Images. She has studied hundreds of US court cases in which neuroscientific evidence was presented in court. We can only speculate about why that might be the case. Last year, Scurich and Appelbaum suggested the intricacies of the scientific evidence might seem so incomprehensible to the average person that they simply ignore this kind of evidence when they sit on a jury.

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He thinks most people may struggle to believe the scientific evidence. For instance, it might simply seem too implausible that something as tangible as our behaviour can be explained by something as intangible as our genes. But the judge or juror then might also decide a more severe sentence is required to keep the defendant off the streets — their biology makes them likely to reoffend.

But he says that there are some situations in which the balance between the two factors can shift, meaning scientific evidence actually hurts the defendant. In he and his colleagues published a study similar to that of Scurich and Appelbaum. The starting point was a hypothetical scenario in which a man diagnosed with psychopathy had been found guilty of a severe assault.

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During their careers, the judges had dealt with many real cases of severe assault. From the information they gave to the researchers about these cases, it seems that they gave the crime a sentence of about nine years on average. This figure dropped to roughly 13 years for a subset of judges who were given an explanation for the psychopathy diagnosis, linking the condition to unusual brain function tied to activity of the MAOA gene.

The takeaway, he thinks, is that in certain circumstances — particularly when a defendant is likely to spend a limited time in prison and then re-enter society — genetic or neuroscientific evidence can make a big difference in court. It can lead to more severe sentences.

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In a paper she argued that this is because there are flaws in the study that Tabery and his colleagues performed. This might have encouraged them to think hard about the future danger the defendant would pose to society — harder than they might have done without prompting. Genes shape much of who we are, but they are not the only factor Credit: Getty Images.

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