DNA and the Law

Murderer Gets Reduced Sentence Because His Genes Made Him Do It

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted October 31, 2009 in DNA and the Law

Hey criminals! Here’s how you get out of taking full responsibility for your dastardly actions:

  1. Fake your DNA sample
  2. Blame it on your identical twin
  3. See if you have the genes that predispose you to whatever crime you’ve committed

Magnetic resonance image of a weakened impulse-control circuit in a brainMurderer Abdelmalek Bayout and his attorneys chose option three. Bayout admitted in 2007 to stabbing and killing Walter Felipe Novoa Perez in Italy. During the first sentencing, he was found to be mentally ill. This year, neuroscientists also found abnormalities in brain-imaging scans and five genes linked to violent behavior, including MAOA.

Although there have been numerous cases since 1994 in which the defense argued for leniency based on MAOA deficiency, this is the first case in which this tactic has been successful. Based on the scans and genetic testing results, the judge reduced Bayout’s sentence by another year.

Not everyone agrees with the judge’s decision.

"We don’t know how the whole genome functions and the [possible] protective effects of other genes," says Giuseppe Novelli, a forensic scientist and geneticist at the University Tor Vergata in Rome. Tests for single genes such as MAOA are "useless and expensive", he adds.

Even worse, this verdict could open the floodgates to claims of all sorts the more we know about genetic influences on behavior. That list above is just about to get longer.

Source: Scientific American

Image: “Structural (left) and functional (right) MRI scan data shows that subjects with the violence-related version of the MAO-A gene (MAOA-L) had reduced volume and activity of the anterior cingulate cortex (blue area in front part of brain at left and corresponding yellow area in at right), which is thought to be the hub of a circuit responsible for regulating impulsive aggression. The color-coded areas show where subjects with the L gene type differed from subjects with the H gene type.”

NIMH Clinical Brain Disorders Branch

(>> Start a discussion!)


Getting a job at the University of Akron could require a DNA sample

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted October 29, 2009 in DNA and the Law

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Want a Job? Submit your DNA

The University of Akron is requiring that new employees must undergo a criminal background check and possibly a DNA sample.

Applicants will be asked to submit fingerprints and at the discretion of The University of Akron may be asked to submit a DNA sample for the purpose of a federal criminal background check.

~University of Akron Criminal Background Checks for Potential University Employees, effective August 12, 2009

Would you submit your DNA to get a job?

For more, see Inside Higher Ed and Taking Liberties at CBS News



Genomics Law Report Special Series on Ethical, Legal, and Social Issues

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted October 20, 2009 in DNA and the Law, DNA in General, The DNA Network Specials

What ELSI is new (article)DNA Network members who have or are contributing articles to the amazing series on ELSI over at Genomics Law Report:

(>> Start a discussion!)


Twin DNA Foil Investigators Again

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted March 21, 2009 in DNA and the Law

Two years ago, identical twin brothers Raymon and Richard Miller both had sex with the same woman who became pregnant. The court decided Raymon was the legal father although the DNA paternity test couldn’t provide definitive proof.

thieves In February, millions of dollars worth of jewelry was stolen in Berlin. Two of the suspects are identical (monozygotic) twins, Hassan and Abbas O. DNA analysis showed that one or both of them were probably at the scene of the crime but it’s impossible to tell. If only one of the brothers is guilty, investigators can’t tell for sure which one it is.

In reality, identical twins do not have perfectly identical DNA due to epigenomic chemical modifications and DNA copy number variations. But until more sophisticated DNA analyses become more widely available or other evidence comes to light, Hassan and Abbas are free and have not been charged. (Spiegel Online via Boing Boing)

Identical twins be forewarned. You may be able to get away with it now, but your time is coming.

NB: In Malaysia, investigators were unable to figure out which one of a pair of identical twins trafficked 166 kilograms of cannabis and 1.7 kilograms of opium. A judge dismissed the case and both twins were set free. (Telegraph)



State Laws Governing Genetic Discrimination

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted January 7, 2009 in DNA and the Law

illinois health Following the signing into law of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) in May 2008, Illinois lawmakers also want to make it illegal for businesses to discriminate against their employees based on DNA test results.

Why do states need to pass their own laws when a national law already exists? According to the National Human Genome Research Institute’s Genetic Discrimination Fact Sheet:

Before the federal law was passed, many states had passed laws against genetic discrimination. The degree of protection from these laws varies widely among the different states. The federal law sets a minimum standard of protection that must be met in all states. It does not weaken the protections provided by any state law.

According to a table compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) of current state laws regarding the use of genetic information in determining health insurance, Illinois already prohibits insurance companies from:

  • Using genetic information to establish rules for eligibility
  • Requiring genetic tests/genetic information
  • Using genetic information for risk selection or risk classification purposes
  • Disclosing information without informed consent

States that so far have no laws in place against the use of genetic information in health insurance include:

  • Mississippi
  • North Dakota
  • Pennsylvania
  • Washington

NCSL also has information on other state genetics laws including those pertaining to employment, frozen embryos, and genetic privacy. Their Genetics Legislation Database also has searchable information on genetics bills considered in state legislatures from 2004 to present.

If you live in the U.S., how does your state fare on genetic nondiscrimination legislation?



How Many Ways Can A Physician Be Sued (Over Genetic Tests)?

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted November 4, 2008 in DNA Testing, DNA and the Law

gavelAmerican Medical News counts the ways in Judging genetic risks: Physicians often caught between what patients want and what science offers.

  1. Wrongful Birth/Life – Patients may sue physicians for not providing enough genetic testing or giving false negative test results.
  2. Pharmacogenomics – Patients may sue doctors for not ordering genetic testing before prescribing certain medications, such as Coumadin (warfarin)
  3. Negligent Medical Advice – Patients may sue a doctor who does not warn them of shared familial genetic risk of disease. Judges in a 2004 Minnesota Supreme Court case ruled that physicians had a duty to both patients and their biological family members to inform of them of genetic testing and diagnosis.
  4. Personal Beliefs Over Patient Rights – Physicians may not be able to claim “right-of-conscience” when it comes to denying patients genetic testing on the grounds of religious or moral beliefs.

Patients should also keep in mind that their physician may not be well-versed in genetics and is most probably not up-to-speed on the latest available genetic tests. Considering the complexity of genetics, can we expect busy doctors to keep abreast of the field? Perhaps one solution is to increase the number of genetic counselors available and making their services affordable and commonplace. On second thought, isn’t that what some direct-to-consumer genetic testing companies are aiming to do?

*Yes, I am affiliated with DNA Direct that offers pre- and post-test education and expert consultation on genetic tests.

Photo credit: Joe Gratz



DNA for Terrorism

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted September 15, 2008 in DNA and the Law, Genetic Engineering

 image for id L0029724New Scientist reports that the Industry Association of Synthetic Biology (IASB) will begin issuing a seal of approval for members to post on their websites which will show that the companies screen their orders for potentially dangerous DNA sequences. The US National Science Advisory Board had been concerned about the potential for terrorists to purchase synthetic DNA to create deadly viruses.

In order to reduce the the chances of bioterrorism using commercially available genetic engineering, IASB committed to:

  1. An anonymized survey of industrially produced and delivered genes
  2. A sequence database accessible for all companies involved in gene synthesis that will help to identify orders requiring closer scrutiny

In related news, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said last week the city ranks only 21st out of 54 eligible states and cities in the amount of funding for bioterrorism prevention despite the city being the number one target for terrorists. The mayor said funding is allocated irrespective of the risk for terrorist attack.

Because of the anthrax episodes in 2001, New York is one of only a handful of places in the nation that’s ever experienced a bio-terror attack. Yet in Fiscal Year 2008, we received $2.72 per capita, putting us an incredible 21st out of 54 eligible states and cities.

For more about bioterrorism, see previous Eye on DNA posts – Beware of Genetic Bioviolence and Could Altering DNA in Bacteria Post a Terrorist Threat?

Photo credit: Wellcome Library, 1927 Anthrax poster

(1 comment)


Is genetic testing useful?

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted August 31, 2008 in DNA Around the World, DNA Testing, DNA and the Law

In The Malaysia Star today, Dr. Teo Soo Hwang explores genetic testing as it applies to the BRCA gene for breast and ovarian cancer – Can genetic testing be useful? The paper is printing “a series of four articles by the Cancer Research Initiatives Foundation (CARIF) that explores how genes are linked to diseases, the relationship between genes and cancer, and what is genetic testing and counselling.”

By the way, Malaysia’s government is currently considering a DNA Identification Bill that would require people charged with a crime to submit DNA samples. While this type of law is nothing new in other countries, such as the UK, the introduction of this bill in Malaysia at this time is part of a political brouhaha involving opposition figure Anwar Ibrahim who has been accused of sexual misconduct. His supporters fear that if he were forced to give a DNA sample, it would be tampered with and falsely incriminating results would be submitted to the courts.

Om Prakash says at malaysiakini.com:

The onus must be on those who want to freely give their DNA sample to prove their innocence. Let us not be threatened with another draconian law like the ISA for political and law- enforcement expediency.

We are not ready to just trust anybody yet.

Conclusion: Genetic testing is useful to some and not so useful for others.

Other DNA articles of interest in The Malaysia Star:

Photo credit: Eye on Malaysia, Lukman Kusuma



Gene Patents and Genetic Testing

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted April 29, 2008 in DNA Testing, DNA and the Law

dna structureThe European Society of Human Genetics (ESHG) has published recommendations on gene patents as applied to genetic testing in the European Journal of Human Genetics. The chair of the working group, Professor Gert Matthijs of the Catholic University of Leuven, said:

This new proposal aims to reconcile what until now have appeared to be conflicting interests patent owners, commercial companies, health authorities, policy makers, geneticists with the ultimate goal of ensuring that patients retain access to the latest technological advances.

Key points include:

  1. Patents benefit society through innovation and promoting progress.
  2. The definition of “invention” vs. “discovery” with the identification of genes, mutations, links between genetic defect and disease are deemed to be discoveries by some and thus would be unethical to patent.
  3. Patenting novel technical tools for genetic testing is a good way to promote investment and allow for invention.
  4. Genetic tests that examine a panel of genes will be impacted negatively by gene patents.
  5. Genetic tests combined with protein or metabolite measurements will also have to consider multiple patents.
  6. Patent applications do not take into account clinical validity and utility.
  7. There are international differences in patent systems which affect the availability of genetic services worldwide.
  8. Gene patents are overly broad and include not just the sequence but also protein and antibodies, etc.

Access to genetic testing can be impeded every step of the way from the discovery of new genes and mutations all the way up to availability of genetic tests. Right now, most of us concentrate on who has the right to have a genetic test and how. Another consideration clearly has to be who will develop the genetic tests and what intellectual property rights they have over their work.

As Michael Crichton said in a New York Times op-ed against gene patents:

Gene patents are now used to halt research, prevent medical testing and keep vital information from you and your doctor. Gene patents slow the pace of medical advance on deadly diseases. And they raise costs exorbitantly: a test for breast cancer that could be done for $1,000 now costs $3,000.

Should we prohibit the patenting of genes? Take the poll in this previous Eye on DNA post.



Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) Nears Unanimous Consent Passage in U.S. Senate

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted April 23, 2008 in DNA and the Law

us capitolAbout an hour ago, Sharon Terry of Genetic Alliance sent out an email regarding the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA). Here’s an excerpt:

OK all – unbelievable as it is, GINA is all set for UC [unanimous consent] passage in the Senate!!!

There is not time today to do the roll call vote, so the big day is tomorrow. The Senate convenes at 10 AM, but we do not know what time the Bill will come up.

GINA was first proposed in 1995 by Louise Slaughter, a House Democrat from western New York. According to the New York Times, if the bill is brought to the Senate floor tomorrow, debate would be limited to two hours with one amendment to address the possibility of employers being sued.

Under GINA:

Life and long-term care insurance coverages, however, are not part of GINA.

For more information, visit Coalition for Genetic Fairness.

Update (24 April 2008): GINA passed the Senate by unanimous consent of 95-0. Now it will be sent to President Bush so that he can sign the measure into law.



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