Moderator: Charles Ogletree, Professor, Harvard Law School
He's an alcoholic and aggressive to the point of violence. But is he responsible for his behavior if it can be traced to a genetic marker in his DNA? In this program's hypothetical case, the panel considers the implications of genetic research focused on undesirable traits such as alcoholism, drug addiction, and aggressive behavior. Charles Ogletree poses a situation involving scientists who stumble into a genetic minefield when they undertake a study of genes and alcohol focused on a particular community that shares a common gene pool. The research study finds a gene variant among a percentage of immigrants from the fictional Tracy Island that indicates an increased risk for addiction to alcohol. When the research is released to the press, a media firestorm erupts that could stigmatize everyone from the Tracy Island community. When genetic research focuses on a family, ethnic, or minority group, what consequences might such groups experience and what responsibility do scientists have to their research subjects? The panel also struggles with the legal implications of the study. If Tracy Islanders are seen as genetically at risk for alcoholism, could a Tracy Islander who gets drunk and kills someone in a bar brawl be acquitted on genetic grounds? Does a genetic predisposition override free will?
Genes on Trial raises challenging questions about the social, ethical, and legal quandaries surrounding genetic research, and about the limits of personal responsibility. Panelist and defense attorney Johnnie Cochran asserts that cutting-edge science has often been used to convict his clients, so it should also be allowed as a defense. He says, "We have an absolute right to do that. I think the science has reached that level."