CHARLOTTE LAWS - DREAM AND ACHIEVE TOGETHER
Desperately Seeking DNA
By Charlotte Laws
the recent Connecticut home invasion didn’t mesmerize us for months like
the cable news soap operas I affectionately call “The Guiding Light of
Anna Nicole Smith” and “As the World Turns around Natalee Holloway,”
but it still got entangled in the media’s “news flash” net and held
our collective attention for a full 48 hours. In the end, two men were
arrested and charged with robbing, raping, and killing a suburban family
as well as torching their home.
was not overly surprised by the villainous events of that day. A 2005 U.S.
Department of Justice report reveals there is one rape for every 1,000
Americans per year and six murders for every 100,000.
was also not shocked when the story became the centerpiece on the
marketplace of ideas dinner table that night. A review conducted by the
Project for Excellence found that media outlets tend to replay the same
select news pieces. This gives the stories a life of their own.
perked my ears about the home invasion crime was the media’s obsession
with a particular, seemingly out-of-place detail: one of the alleged
perpetrators, Joshua Komisarjevsky, had been adopted. One newspaper went
so far as to title its story, “Alleged Connecticut Killer Adopted as
not title the story “Alleged Connecticut Killer Ate Lima Beans for
Lunch?” Is it because lima beans rarely cause an average Joe to explode
into a lawless rampage? Can “defective” genes be a precursor to crime?
the adoptive family, the press, or both, accepted the premise that
biological factors can trigger violence. It’s possible the family,
hoping to distance themselves from the heinous act and convey that they
have “good DNA,” pitched the “he’s not related to us” angle to
reporters. It’s equally possible that members of the press decided this
detail was somehow meaningful. Whatever the case, the idea was embedded in
multiple articles, although there was no outward mention of a possible
link between hereditary factors and criminal behavior.
pieces and Internet blogs revealed how Komisarjevsky’s family struggled
for years to straighten out the wayward boy, who became a burglar at the
age of 14. Attempts to make him feel like part of the family were futile.
reminded me of a disturbingly similar story from a 1999 60 Minutes
segment, which described the case of Jeff Landrigan, a young man who was
adopted at birth by a law-abiding family, but who now sits on death row
for murder. Landrigan’s adoptive sister speculated that her brother had
bad genes, adding, “I personally think that the day by brother was born,
his fate was probably sealed…”
on death row, Landrigan found out his birthfather was imprisoned on death
row in another state and that his family tree was peppered with felons. He
told 60 Minutes he believed crime was passed down in his family
“like cancer or heart disease.”
body of evidence supports Landrigan’s theory, although environmental
influences are likewise powerful and should not be discounted. In Change
Your Brain /Change Your Life, psychiatrist Daniel Amen states that the
cingulate gyrus, curving through the center of the brain is hyperactive in
murderers. Other researchers have determined that violent males have low
levels of serotonin, a condition that has a high rate of heritability. The
National Institute of Health conducted a study on the serotonin levels of
prison inmates and determined with an 84 percent accuracy which ones would
return to crime upon their release.
Sarnoff A. Mednick’s study of 14,427 adopted children, as discussed in
the New York Times, reveals how a propensity to chronic criminal
behavior may be passed through the genes. Although Mednick does not
believe criminal behavior is directly passed down, he holds that certain
biological factors that might be associated with crime can be inherited.
He cites a biological predisposition towards substance abuse as an
does this theory mean for the person looking to adopt? And what are the
chances a newly acquired child will have gene-related difficulties?
Although there do not seem to be any studies on this topic, it is possible
there are a greater percentage of adoptees today with problematic
tendencies. In the more puritanical past, a woman was more likely to give
up her child simply to avoid stigma and social ostracism. She may have
become pregnant while unmarried or involved in an affair, but beyond that
was law-abiding and well adjusted. A woman who puts a child up for
adoption today is arguably more likely to do so for pressing reasons, i.e.
due to problems with illegal substances, imprisonment or family abuse,
factors that could be hereditable. In addition, celebrities, such as
Madonna and Angelina Jolie, make it fashionable and more common to adopt
infants from foreign lands whose biological predispositions are unscreened
the other hand, it is possible there are a smaller number of adoptees
today with so-called genetic flaws. Abortion is now an option for
“troubled” women. In Freakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen
Dubner say crime has declined over the past twenty years because “the
pool of potential criminals (has) dramatically shrunk,” a fact they
attribute to Roe vs. Wade. Although these authors are not arguing for
biological connections to crime, they say women in adverse family
environments are more likely to have children who grow up to be criminals,
and these are typically the women who get the abortions.
addition, adoptions have become more open and cooperative. According to
the LA Times, adoptive and natural parents meet at least once in
90% of all infant adoptions, and 25% of these adoptions are completely
open. This means an increasing number of birth parents and adoptive
parents come together in some way, review each other’s physical and
personal history and stay in contact. Genetic secrets are less likely to
be locked away in bureaucratic clinics; problems can be confronted and
resolved to some degree through positive environmental reinforcement.
scientists and psychologists will tell you the nature vs. nurture debate
is complex and by no means resolved. Landrigan promoted the “my genes
made me do it” argument in several court appeals. In the end, he lost.
The US Supreme Court made the final ruling against him three months ago,
and he is likely to be executed soon.
case is next and inquiring minds want to know: Will he desperately seek
his DNA, or do what most defendants do and blame it on his “nurture”
Unfortunately, the “lima beans defense” rarely works.
in the Santa Monica
Daily Press on August 10, 2007.