How biological and psychological perspectives on psychopathy shape public opinion
It is commonly known that when a psychopath is on the stand, the prosecution is going to push for a jail term based upon the idea that the defendant is sane. The defense, on the other hand, will no doubt argue that their client is insane, and so should therefore be sent to a psychiatric institution.
In order to determine if the defendant is a psychopath, very often a test called the psychopathy checklist – revised (PCL-R) will be administered. This test has to be conducted by a trained psychologist who has the time to get familiar with the defendant and their history. However, it has been shown that psychologists hired by the prosecution and the defense can come up with different verdicts that tend to favor their own arguments. If the test determines that the defendant is a psychopath then they have essentially just been tarred and feathered and will meet the full wrath of the law with no sympathy. If the test shows otherwise, that label of psychopath will not be applied, and the defendant is likely to meet some leniency.
Numerous points can be made here, but the point I would like to make is that the use of the psychological test (the PCL-R), if it determines that the defendant is a psychopath, seems to convince the jury of the worst, and they are likely to reflect this in their judgment. However, a recent article on NPR pointed out that judges tends to be lenient when the biological basis for psychopathy is pointed out. It is indeed true that the neurobiology of the psychopath is different; this has been indicated on the tissue level and the genetic level.
This seems to suggest that a judge can be told that a psychological test has determined the defendant is a psychopath and so causes the worst possible outcome, yet if an explanation is given on the tissue, cellular, or genetic level, they can be swayed back towards leniency. It’s as if biological explanations destroy the facade of an individual and look to the minute building blocks of life (which we have no/limited control over), but the minute psychology appears, the individual is back and suddenly accountable for their actions.
This is one problem with juries when it comes to trying psychopaths. If the level of scientific analysis focuses on the individual, the jury will see the individual, whereas if the level of analysis on the molecular biological level, the jury will see cells and genes (which have a life of their own). I, personally, think it is irresponsible to allow a jury to have to reconcile these differences during the trial, especially if they have no scientific understanding.
**I would like to point out that not all psychologists work at the level of the organism, of course, and even if they do they are likely to be aware of cellular/genetic implications of their work.
Copyright Jack Pemment, 2012
Author, Seeing Red
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