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Rurik Jutting

Rurik Jutting: how the fate of a jailed psychopath raises questions about free will

Paul Stapleton says research shows certain inborn biological markers, as well as brain abnormalities, may be associated with criminal behaviour, but questions remain about how much of it is really beyond human control

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 November, 2016, 11:58am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 October, 2017, 9:06am

British banker Rurik Jutting was handed a life sentence for his heinous murder of two women, though the defence claimed diminished responsibility from the effects of alcohol and cocaine.

While there is no doubt that a life sentence is appropriate, such crimes always raise some doubt about the extent that psychopaths like Jutting have control over their actions. The idea that psychopaths have diminished responsibility because of genetic propensities is generally viewed with scepticism. Parents and education systems teach that we are solely responsible for our lot in life. Of course, intuitively, we are aware our genes have something to do with our behaviour. Just reading the news, we are aware that psychopathic behaviour is overwhelmingly associated with being male, one reason why there are far more men than women in prisons. So, biology obviously has an impact on criminal behaviour. Recent research findings are beginning to uncover more evidence that certain inborn biological markers are associated with criminality.

A man’s ring finger is more likely to be longer than his index finger, caused by differences in testosterone exposure levels in the womb. The more testosterone, the longer the ring finger. A growing body of research is now finding that the ring-index finger ratio is linked to male aggressiveness, impulsiveness and sensation seeking. And also that offenders in prison are more likely to have long ring fingers compared to index fingers than non-offenders, indicating an underlying genetic basis to criminality.

Profile of a killer: Rurik Jutting’s descent into brutal depravity

In The Anatomy of Violence, neurocriminologist Adrian Raine describes how research on our brain and antisocial behaviour is changing the understanding of how much free will we have. He tells of offenders whose brain scans show abnormal volumes of the prefrontal cortex, where rational decision-making occurs, or misshapen or abnormally sized amygdala and hippocampus – linked to emotions and memories.

In many psychopaths, these abnormalities can impair the ability to regulate emotions and make rational decisions. Scans of offenders whose childhoods were full of abuse and poor nutrition, and without parental love, also showed abnormalities, Raine says.

We are unlikely to ever know to what extent brain abnormalities are to blame for Jutting’s horrific acts. But, as we learn more about the behavioural tendencies in our brains, both inborn and forged in our childhoods, it raises uncomfortable questions about the degree to which criminal behaviour is the result of neural predispositions beyond our control, and the extent of free will.

Paul Stapleton is an associate professor at the Education University of Hong Kong