Category: Research

This study discusses psychopathy in criminal proceedings and in the society at large. To start with, it highlights the debate of free will in criminal behavior. As to whether the culprit was in control of their thoughts during the commission of crime, it has become important in the verdict passed in courts of law.

Psychopathy is explored using the example of Raymond Garland’s criminal case. A renowned sex offender, Garland is diagnosed with psychopathy as submitted by his psychiatrist. This, however, aggravates the dimension of his appeal as he is viewed to be potentially too dangerous to society.

The underlying biological mechanism of psychopathy is also discussed. Though the condition is not conclusively investigated, researches to date show that it is occasioned by a random genetic mutation that causes poor development of the social areas of the brain. Its treatment procedure and implications are also not clear, which makes the treatment of psychopaths difficult.

The paper also highlights the role of society in preventing the prevalence of psychopathy. Specifically, the role of Saint Leo University is explored, with reference to its core values.


Investigations into the existence of free will in criminal behavior have continued to change the course of court cases and in some instances have altered sentences and verdicts delivered. The question is whether the culprit was mentally stable during the commission of the crime. One school of thought postulates that an individual actually chooses to engage in criminal activity. As such, he/she is consciously aware and hence responsible of the criminal act (Bartol & Bartol, 1986). On the other hand, some psychologists argue that some biological and psychological factors compel individuals to engage in crime (Bartol & Bartol, 1986). The argument is that human beings are innately rational and cannot hurt other members of society by their own free will. A person’s character is a function of his genetics. This argument has complicated judicial procedure.

Raymond Garland’s Criminal Case

In August 2012, a landmark announcement was made concerning an inmate, Raymond Henry Garland. This was during the review of 4 indefinite sentences delivered by the Brisbane District Court against him in 1998. Psychiatrist Joan Lawrence submitted to the court that Garland had almost 100% chance of violent reoffending if released from prison. Additionally, he was a psychopathic master of manipulation and seemed incapable of sexual pleasure without violence or inflicting pain. Dr. Lawrence disclosed that Garland was unsuitable for rehabilitation given that he had previously tested positive for hard drugs a day after an intervention program. He was thus more likely to be brutal and dangerous once out of jail (Keim, 2013). These submissions further caused the jury to decline any appeal to repeal the indefinite sentences against Garland.

To briefly describe the inmate, Garland is considered one of the most vicious and remorseless sexual predators of all time in Australia. Records have it that by the time of his sentencing in 1998, he had raped for the previous 13 years and never had the slightest remorse for his victims. He first engaged in sexual offences at the age of 14 and had spent most of his adolescent and adult life in prison. As a prisoner, he sodomized inmates too. More astonishing is the fact that while on parole, in April 1997, he held 14 people hostage and violently raped two women and a boy (Keim, 2013). This crime in 1997 is what led to a string of four indefinite sentences, an indication that he shall remain in jail all his life.

Studies into the Biological Mechanism behind Psychopathy

Psychopathy has been a subject of research by psychiatrists and biological scientists. Nigel Blackwood of King's College London's Institute of Psychiatry conducted a study to investigate the brain structure of psychopaths in British prisons. He appreciated the use of brain scans to identify and diagnose psychopathic criminals. His team used Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to establish that the psychopaths' brains had significantly less grey matter in the anterior rostra prefrontal cortex and temporal poles than the brains of the non-psychopathic people (Blair, 2006). These parts of the brain are responsible for understanding other people‘s emotions and intentions. Poor development of these sections is associated with lack of empathy, poor response to fear and distress and lack of self-conscious emotions including guilt and embarrassment. Conclusively, psychopathy is a neurodevelopmental brain disorder.

The social parts of the brain may have been defective from birth or may be damaged in an accident. It is, however, more common that a psychopath was born generally normal and the mutation in the brain occurs during childhood and adolescence; it is considered a random genetic mutation. It is argued that a genetic factor could be involved in creating a predisposition to these specific neurological deficits. However, this is unlikely, as psychopathy is itself not hereditary. What is more likely is the effect of environmental factors in shaping brain development (Arieti, 1963). The environment influences the neural development of children and adolescents. Biologically, the medial OFC receives projections from and sends projections to the amygdale. Instrumental learning and response reversal — both of which functions are impaired in individuals with psychopathy – also depend on this area. Brain disorder is therefore the basis of psychopathy, i.e. the significantly less amount of gray matter on the frontal cortex.

Child abuse, bad peer influence and low social-economic status have a strong correlation in the diagnosis with psychopathy. Researches indicate that children who suffered physical or sexual abuse exhibit higher rates of criminal records, larger number of arrests, and more arrests for violent offenses as adults. They also have higher tendencies to demonstrate antisocial and aggressive behavior, leading to violent crimes as adults (Forth, Kosson, & Hare, 2003). From a psychological point of view, exposure of a child to abuse changes his perception of reality, causing him/her to lose humane qualities such as sy mpathy and love. Psychopaths thus engage in crime out of a conviction that it is the right thing to do. This makes them a lot more dangerous than non-psychopaths. Chronic misuse of substances, e.g. amphetamine, is shown to lead to disturbance in functions mediated by the orbit frontal cortex (OFC). Sometimes, a random, inexplicable genetic mutation could cause psychopathy, e.g. a brain tumor. When a brain tumor develops in or near the orbit frontal cortex and similar brain regions, it affects the functionality of these parts resulting in psychopathy (Lilienfeld & Widows, 2005).

These arguments are held as true in Garland’s case, as Dr. Lawrence outlined. He is said to have been victim to abuse at a young age, which may have caused the genetic mutation that resulted in psychopathy. His chronic abuse of hard drugs further aggravates the situation. As the psychiatrist revealed, he had tested positive for hard drugs only a day after an intervention program. One can infer that it is on these grounds that Dr. Lawrence classifies his case irrecoverable (Keim, 2013).

Influence of Defendant’s Psychopathy on Judicial Process

Of importance too is the perception of judges and magistrates towards criminal psychopaths. In this regard, Tabery, together with psychologist Lisa Aspinwall and law professor Teneille Brown, also at Utah, set out to survey 181 US judges in different states. The judges were provided with a fictional case study of a criminal psychopath who engaged in bloody bank and plant robberies. Without knowing that the criminal was a psychopath, the judges averaged 9 years. Upon knowledge that the criminal was diagnosed with psychopathy, the sentence averaged 14 years. When a psychiatrist revealed that it was a genetic mutation beyond the culprit’s control that caused the psychopathy, the sentence was only reduced by a year (Caldwell, Skeem, Salekin, & Van Rybroek, 2006). While some judges view medical evidence of psychopathy as a defense for the accused, others saw it as reinforcement to the prosecution. This study revealed that judges dreaded psychopathy since it increased the culprit’s chances of reoffending once the sentence was over. With biological evidence, however, the sentence was reduced but only slightly. Stephen Morse, professor of law and psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, postulates that free will is a complete non-issue in a court room. "Having free will or not having it is not part of any legal doctrine, and needs never be proven or disproven" (Bartol & Bartol, 1986). This is seen in play when the appeal to have Garland’s indefinite sentences repealed on psychopathic grounds fails in 2012.

Treatment Implications of Psychopathy

The treatment of psychopathy is a subject of research and debate among both biologists and psychologists. Biologists believe in a scientific approach to treatment, while psychologists insist that it is a social disorder and should thus be addressed socially. New emerging perspectives on the etiology of psychopathy and ideas about distinct processes underlying separable facets of the disorder open up many new possibilities for treatment (Hall, Bernat, & Patrick, 2007). Of importance however are 2 classes of interventions: feedback-based response modification, and cognitive and attentional bias retraining.

The feedback-based response modification involves response modification by provision of feedback. Feedback can take various forms: information about behavioral performance (behavioral feedback) or information regarding electro cortical (EEG/ERP) or functional brain (fMRI) response (biofeedback). The Flanker discrimination procedure is an appropriate example of behavioral feedback. The participant is asked to identify the direction of a central arrow surrounded either by other arrows pointing in the same direction or in the opposite direction. After several trials, an error is identified in the feedback provided. Biofeedback, by contrast, involves online monitoring of physiological and/or brain activity index. Information about activity is provided to the participant in real-time (Haller, Birbaumer, & Veit, 2010). Using fMRI to generate and relay biofeedback can enable participants to learn to consciously control the levels of activation in specific brain areas. Due to this specificity, fMRI biofeedback thus holds potential for treatment of disorders that are characterized by increased or decreased brain reactivity in distinct brain regions.

Attentional retraining procedures focus on training individuals to modify attentional biases through provision of subtle reward cues. They also comprise a class of interventions recently developed mostly in the context of treating anxiety disorders (Patrick & Bernat, 2009). The dot probe paradigm is typically used as a means of assessing attentional and processing biases. Two stimuli of different categories (e.g., neutral versus unpleasant) are presented simultaneously on a screen for a brief interval and immediately replaced by one or two dots. Using button or keyboard press and as quickly as possible, participants indicate whether one or two dots appeared after the offset of task stimuli. This process is repeated severally.

The tendency of participants to attend to stimuli of one type or the other is indexed by comparing average reaction time for trials when the dot probe is presented at locations of one (e.g., negatively valenced word) relative to the other (neutral word). A faster average reaction time for one type of stimulus compared to the other signifies that participants were generally attending more to stimuli of that type when the probe appeared. Participants with anxiety disorder generally exhibit preference for negatively valenced words. Psychopaths are retrained to focus their attention to positive or neutral words, as opposed to the negative. This process, though simplistic, has been seen to yield positive results in a short time. Mild cases of psychopathy can be intervened by intensive behavioral intervention mechanisms, especially in children.

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The lack of a clear procedure for treating psychopathy has continued to condemn psychopaths to abnormal lifestyles. These persons eventually lose contact with the society around them and engage in crime or commit suicide. Meanwhile society is more unsafe and less productive with an increasing number of psychopaths, who cannot be satisfactorily handled by health and psychiatrist centers.

Mitigating the Prevalence of Psychopathy and Its Underlying Biological Mechanism

The causes of psychopathy can be mitigated socially and biologically. As to whether psychopathy is hereditary, it remains very unclear. From the current studies, the prevalence of psychopathy can be minimized by addressing core social vices that negatively affect an individual’s normal neurodevelopment. Campaigns against child abuse and molestation can serve well to create necessary awareness of the need to protect our children. These campaigns should have both government and private funding to penetrate the low social-economic classes which are worst hit by prevalence of psychopathy. Legislation should be firm on the treatment of child violators to deter such behavior. These efforts create a stable peaceful environment for the development of children and minimize the incidents of mutation of the OFC.

In addition, anti-narcotics campaigns can help reduce the number of drug abusers who become psychopaths. A perennial narcotics abuser tends to live in a different, almost separate world from the general population. He/she is hence more likely to develop psychopathy.

Exercises are also instrumental in averting the possibility of psychopathy in drug abusers. When drug abusers become psychopaths, it becomes virtually impossible to rehabilitate them since they have lost their humane properties and are no longer rational, even when sober.

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Role of Society and Institutions in Averting Future Occurrences of Psychopathy

It is notable that society indeed has a role to play in reducing the rates of psychopathy and its underlying causes. In this regard, Saint Leo University does well in teaching and training Christian virtues both in the university and in the surrounding community. This is in line with one of its core values, community. Under this core value, the institution fosters a spirit of belonging, unity, and community based on respect and trust to create socially responsible environments. The university reckons that a productive and peaceful society is its mandate and thus engages to teach and equip the community with values that improve their character. There are biannual cultural events sponsored by the university that appreciate the diversity of society and reemphasize unity. In a sense, this endeavor helps to create harmony in the society and inhibit development of psychopathic characters.

Additionally, Saint Leo’s core value of personal development makes the institution instrumental in the development of value and inhibition of vice in the society. Saint Leo University stresses the holistic development of everyone to achieve overall success in life. In this regard, the university has established community centers that counsel and rehabilitate drug abusers to make them better individuals. Besides, the institution has moved to open its sports facilities to the surrounding community. This has helped identify and nurture talent in the society which would otherwise have been lost. A show of care and support coupled with the right counsel help members of the community to embrace productive and amicable lifestyles.

The university is also resilient in its researches on psychopathy and other social ills. A social research center was set up under the department of sociology to address the unnoticed social ills in the community. Though the researches are more social than medical, they have helped determine and intervene where prevalence of social decay is identified. This is in the spirit of responsible stewardship. As a responsible steward, the university declares its obligation to give the society in which it is founded the best from itself, to commit its resources for the good of the society. As such, it teaches and trains students to be responsible leaders in society. Besides, Saint Leo University also undertakes to develop hospitable Christian learning communities everywhere it sets base.


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