The darker side of human nature was the focus of an interdisciplinary panel at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus on Nov. 28.

Crime and Punishment, a presentation sponsored by Fordham’s Office of Research, brought together Deborah Denno, Ph.D., the Arthur A. McGivney Professor of Law at Fordham University School of Law, Olena Nikolayenko, Ph.D., assistant professor of political science, and Edgar Tyson, Ph.D., assistant professor of social work in the Graduate School of Social Service.

Story continue below

Edgar Tyson, Olena Nikolayenko, and Deborah Denno, during the question and answer period.
Photo by Patrick Verel

Faculty panelists reported on their recent research around the theme of crime, funded through grants from Fordham.
Tyson detailed the results of his survey of 305 police officers in a Northeastern city. An expert on the use of hip-hop music in social work therapy, Tyson wanted to know if police believed rap artists and their entourages to be more violent than average citizens.

Older officers, he discovered, hold that opinion of both groups, while their younger counterparts less so. This perception is troubling, Tyson said, because a study of 250 rap artists with arrest records revealed that they were less likely to commit a crime after they’d published their first album.

Nikolayenko’s research into hate crime and prosecution in Russia also dwells on misperceptions, in this case in Russia, where she used one court case to illustrate a larger problem involving the prosecution of hate crimes.

In one case, Rasul Mirzaev, a mixed martial artist from the Republic of Dagestan, scuffled with Ivan Agafonov, a native Russian, at a nightclub in Moscow in 2011. Agafonov died as a result. When charges against Mirzaef were downgraded from pre-meditated murder to a lesser charge, there was a backlash by Russian nativists.

“This case reflects the broader trend in Russian society, where the nationalists use these instances of interpersonal conflict between young men to try to frame it as something bigger [and]to provoke anti-migrant sentiments,” she said.

One of the biggest challenges Nikolayenko faced while trying to gather data about the prevalence of hate crimes in Russia are the nation’s laws. One law on the books, she said, allows the police to prosecute anyone as an extremist if the person so much as accuses a police officer of being an “extremist.”

Although official statistics on hate crimes in Russia show they have been dropping since 2007, the trend is more a reflection of under-reporting or misclassification of a hate crime as “hooliganism,” she said, than an actual decrease.
“The focus on hate crimes is important because it can inform our understanding of political stability in the country, and also the challenge of democratization,” she said.

Denno reported on her study of 33 criminal cases between 2007 and 2011, in which  behavioral genetics evidence was introduced by defendants. Alcoholism, substance abuse, and diseases such as schizophrenia are examples of the kinds of evidence that might be used by defense lawyers.

“Criminologists are always interested in what predicts crime and what causes crime, and behavioral genetics evidence is one large facet of that, particularly more recently,” she said.

Denno suggested that not only is much of the controversy surrounding genetics-related evidence unwarranted, but the use of such evidence has been greatly misunderstood. Such evidence, she said, has never been presented as a way to excuse a defendant from having committed the crime; rather, it was used as a way to avoid the death penalty.

Jared Lee Loughner, who pleaded guilty to murder charges for the shooting of Senator Gabrielle Giffords in 2011, is a good example. One way his lawyers kept him from death row was to research his family tree back to the 1800’s and prove his ancestors suffered from schizophrenia.

“When lawyers use behavioral genetics evidence, it’s almost entirely used in the context of a lot of other kinds of factors,” Denno said. “Anyone who does research in these areas would know that behavioral genetics evidence is much more enlightening about what effect environmental factors have on a defendant than anything inherent to that defendant.”