Born To Kill?

2 Feb

On December 15, 1989, Chester Dean Dyer’s mutilated body was found inside his Phoenix apartment.  Jeffrey Landrigan (pictured) was later convicted by an Arizona jury of several direct criminal acts relative to Dyer’s death, including counts of theft, second-degree burglary, and felony murder.  Landrigan appealed his capital sentence by arguing that there was a genetic basis to his crime.  Could it be that he was born to kill?

There are biological and social risk factors that Landrigan argues made violence an inevitable outcome. Although he first did not wish to address these as mitigating factors for his punishment, he asked judges to reconsider the aspects of his background that put him at risk for committing the crime.  Landrigan was adopted when he was nine months old and never knew his biological parents.  However, on his biological side, there are at least four generations of males implicated in violent crime. His biological father, Darrell Hill, was also on death row for murder when Hill passed away.

Growing up, Landirgan did not know he was a fourth generation criminal.  He was adopted by the Landrigans at a few months old.  They were well educated, had good jobs, and lived an entirely different state.  Jeff stated that he felt love, yet felt that he never really belonged.  He had tempter tantrums at age two, a drinking problem at age 10, and dozens of problems throughout his teens.  While snooping, he found out that he was adopted.  Later, when in prison for previous problems with the law, a fellow inmate said that he knew someone who looked exactly like Jeff on death row in Arkansas.  They reunited and played chess through the mail.  Though they never met, they had parallel lives of alcohol and drug abuse, escaping prison, and committing brutal murders.   Could it be that crime was part of his genetic makeup?

Landrigan was unaware of this family history of violence in his murder trials, but after finding out about them is arguing that a genetic predisposition to crime should be considered in reviewing his punishment.   To get off death row, he claimed that his destiny was bound by his DNA.  Dr. Adrian Raine, my professor and boss throughout my time as an undergraduate at Penn, discussed the issues surrounding Landragen’s appeal.  Dr. Raine is known for his research on the biological and sociological correlates of crimes.  However, Raine’s comments at the appeal was that there is no “murder gene.”  No one has demonstrated systematically that murder is heritable.  However, when genes interact, there can be a push and pull towards crime and violence.   However, there is no certainty.  Currently, we don’t have the date with individual cases, and it is difficult to go from population to studies to one individual case in a methodologically sound case.  Dr. Raine later explained that he thought the explanation for Landragen’s behavior despite the fact that he grew up with all of the support and resources in the world had a genetic and biological basis.

The Supreme Court ultimately rejected his defenses. He lost the chance for an evidentiary hearing to investigate the possibility that he was genetically predisposed to violent behavior.  After twenty years on Arizona death row, Landrigan was ultimately executed by injection, which has been met with considerable controversy.

If this defense is plausible, why don’t more people use it?  One explanation is that some may feel that if a behavior not being able to be cured offers even more support for capital punishment.  If we begin to accept it, we will be forced to almost medicalize criminal behavior, treat crime like cancer.  Where will that take us further down the road, not only with crime, but with all forms of behavior?  If there is a murder gene, the implications are frightening.


4 Responses to “Born To Kill?”

  1. bethgreaney January 31, 2011 at 12:37 am #

    Great post! I completely agree with you– the implications of using genetics as a defense to murders is, for lack of a better word, “frightening.” I recently watched a television show exploring the lives of children of serial killers. One woman featured in the program, Melissa Moore, is the daughter of Keith Hunter Jesperson, the infamous “Happy Face Killer.” Jesperson was a truck driver who killed eight known women while making his long-distance journeys. Moore recalls that at by the age of 12, her father began dropping hints about his second life. At one point, he told his daughter, “I know how to kill someone and get away with it.”

    Moore, along with the other children featured in the program, did not grow up to become murderers. Almost all of the children, however, experienced similar psychological issues once learning about their parents’ terrifying criminal histories. Some dabbled in drugs; most became depressed; and a few had children at an extremely early age (or an abortion). But, none of them were violent. I find it difficult to assume that one is a murderer because of his or her genes. Perhaps one is predisposed for violence, but even then, environment and one’s will are such a crucial factors that cannot and should not be overlooked.

    Read more about Moore and her past here:

  2. Rachel Funk January 31, 2011 at 12:43 am #

    The question of how much control we have over who we are and how we act is endlessly fascinating and anxiety-provoking. My understanding is that most social scientists take the position that some of it we can control, and some of it we can’t. There’s this great Arlo & Janis comic (it’s relevant, I promise) where he says that 80%, or some such depressingly high number, of what determines our physical well-being is genetic, implying that we should just give up. But Janis says, well, that makes it all the more important that we do what we can with the part that we *can* control. In a similar vein, in The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky asserts that we all have a base level of happiness that is determined by factors out of our control. But the point of the book is to illustrate ways in which we can increase the amount of happiness we experience, even if the set level we would return to if we did nothing doesn’t change.

    To put it more concisely, it’s likely that there’s some stuff we can control regarding any murderous tendencies, and some stuff we can’t. But the fact that there’s some stuff we can’t control simply means that we need to work more on the stuff that we can. I find it hard to believe that whether or not you murder someone is *completely* out of your control, although maybe that’s just my susceptibility to the rational actor model talking.

  3. Antoine Calvert March 15, 2011 at 2:03 am #

    Though he or someone else may argue a predisposition to commit muder, I’m a loss to find a precedent for judcial relief in such a case.

  4. Maria Peterson December 29, 2015 at 8:27 pm #

    If anyone has anymore information on this case I would appreciate you contacting me at Darrell Wayne Hill was my Uncle and I am looking for a video of his special that aired on was either dateline or 20/ of the investigative shows and it was a while back as my Uncle died in 2005. He also had a book published on this theory if I remember correctly. Thank you for your time.

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