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Behavioral Genetics in Criminal and Civil Courts

Sabatello, Maya LLB, PhD; Appelbaum, Paul S. MD

doi: 10.1097/HRP.0000000000000141

Although emerging findings in psychiatric and behavioral genetics create hope for improved prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of disorders, the introduction of such data as evidence in criminal and civil proceedings raises a host of ethical, legal, and social issues. Should behavioral and psychiatric genetic data be admissible in judicial proceedings? If so, what are the various means for obtaining such evidence, and for what purposes should its admission be sought and permitted? How could—and should—such evidence affect judicial outcomes in criminal and civil proceedings? And what are the potential implications of using behavioral and psychiatric genetic evidence for individuals and communities, and for societal values of equality and justice? This article provides an overview of the historical and current developments in behavioral genetics. We then explore the extent to which behavioral genetic evidence has—and should—affect determinations of criminal responsibility and sentencing, as well as the possible ramifications of introducing such evidence in civil courts, with a focus on tort litigation and child custody disputes. We also consider two ways in which behavioral genetic evidence may come to court in the future—through genetic theft or the subpoena of a litigant’s biospecimen data that was previously obtained for clinical or research purposes—and the concerns that these possibilities raise. Finally, we highlight the need for caution and for approaches to prevent the misuse of behavioral genetic evidence in courts.

From the Department of Psychiatry, Columbia University.

Original manuscript received 14 August 2016, accepted for publication subject to revision 3 October 2016; revised manuscript received 21 October 2016.

Correspondence: Maya Sabatello, LLB, PhD, New York State Psychiatric Institute, 1051 Riverside Dr., Unit 122, New York, NY 10032. Email:

© 2017 President and Fellows of Harvard College
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