New Zealand Law Society - Genetics, Crime and Justice

Genetics, Crime and Justice

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Reviewed by Chris Macklin

Genetics, Crime and Justice aims to explore the use of genetic information both in criminal investigations and during the trial process. According to its own promotional summary, the book “discusses current scientific understanding and considers some potential legal, ethical and sociological issues with the use of genetic information”.

The book aims to contribute to debate, rather than decisively determine issues. The content and tone is therefore generally expository, rather than being overly opinionated. The book covers an incredibly broad range of fields that rub up against crime, justice and genetics. These include criminal law, medical law, policy, criminal justice, philosophy, ethics, sociology, psychiatry and psychology.

Debra Wilson presents her work in six chapters (not including an introduction and conclusion): History of genetics and criminal justice; Use of genetics in criminal investigations; The “criminal gene”; The “criminal gene” argument in courts; The impact of the “criminal gene” argument on punishment theory; and Introduction on ethical issues.

These chapter headings provide a good idea of the topics covered. Each chapter flows well when read in sequence, but I am convinced the chapters could also stand alone or be read out of sequence if a reader is trying to drill down on just one topic.

The content is focused around two distinct but related genetic developments: DNA and identification; and the impact of genetics on our understanding of human behaviour. On the latter topic, MAOA gene variants receive particular attention. This is the gene often (mis)characterised in the media as the possible “warrior gene”, with possible links to aggression that some argue should impact on our assessments of culpability, and the ability to form genuinely criminal intent.

The content is repeatedly related back to a consistent scenario that Wilson provides in the introduction, “the case of Child A and Child B”. These two children are involved in an unfortunate incident, their own DNA plays a role in their arrest and conviction, and subsequent genetic information then impacts on both children and some family members.

The scenario is set out in full at the start, and then parts of it are discussed again in light of the topics being covered by the author. This structure ensures that the content is consistently presented in a way that the reader can see “play out”. The hypothetical case of Child A and Child B is also supplemented throughout with succinct summaries of scientific studies and court cases.

With such a wide-ranging scope, but just 247 pages of text, the material is necessarily introductory. Readers are treated to an incredible exposition across a range of topics, and this is commendable. There is likely to be something that will interest everyone in this text.

However, some may find the wide scope but relatively short volume leaves them feeling like the material is a “once over lightly”. That is unfair, because the text appears carefully researched. Nonetheless, it is unavoidable that the succinct presentation carries limitations in terms of depth.

For example, the opening portion of the third chapter, “Use of genetics in criminal investigations”, summarises the law on DNA collection, and sample and/or profile retention in different national jurisdictions.

The information is necessarily set at the most general level, and the only jurisdictions covered are the United Kingdom, United States, Australia and New Zealand. Canada, South Africa and other comparable English derived justice systems are not covered. This is not a criticism, but an observation. Obviously more specialist texts are required by those looking for an authoritative account of law across particular jurisdictions.

The only other reader review I found online was more succinct than mine: “5/5 stars: Easy to read and riveting.”1 Personally, I did not find the book riveting, but that is a matter of preference and certainly no fault of the author’s.

The careful presentation and clear language make the book easy to read. Many will find the real cases and studies discussed riveting, or at least engaging. Certainly, the book is not overly dry or dense. Overall, this is a good contemporary exposition of many emerging issues in genetics and justice.

Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd, October 2015, 978-1-783478-81-1, 260 pages, hardcover and e-book, US$125 (p&h not included).

Chris Macklin is a senior prosecutor and partner at Gordon & Pilditch in Rotorua. He specialises in criminal prosecutions, but also regularly conducts regulatory prosecutions, including prosecutions under the Civil Aviation Act 1990, and the Resource Management Act 1991. Chris also acts for the Police in proceeds of crime litigation. He is a member of the New Zealand Law Society’s Criminal Law Committee.

Caveat - I do not have ready access to academic journal databases online, and there are bound to be more involved reviews in such sources. The cited review:

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