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.