Considering Lead Poisoning as a Criminal Defense

24 Pages Posted: 3 Jun 2008 Last revised: 5 Jun 2008


This essay reports the results of the 'Biosocial Study,' one of this country's largest longitudinal' studies of biological, sociological, and environmental predictors of crime. The Biosocial Study is unique because it analyzed numerous variables relating to a group of nearly one thousand males and females during the first twenty-four years of their lives: from the time the subjects' mothers were admitted into the same Philadelphia hospital to give birth until the subjects' twenty-fourth birthday. Detailed information was collected during the course of these subjects' lives in order to answer two basic questions: First, what factors within, or in addition to, these subjects' urban environments were related to any criminal behavior they may engage in? Second, what factors were associated with fairly well established indicators of crime, such as academic and disciplinary problems in school? The multidisciplinary nature of the Biosocial Study's data enabled the testing of many different theories of crime: biological, psychological, sociological, and environmental. Given this broad range, however, one of the Biosocial Study's major findings was particularly striking: Among males, lead poisoning, a factor related to the urban environment, was among the strongest predictors of crime, even though numerous biological and sociological factors were also examined. This essay then considers whether it is viable to establish a lead poisoning criminal defense in light of the Biosocial Study's finding of a significant relationship between lead poisoning and three variables indicating behavioral problems at different ages: adult crime, juvenile crime, and disciplinary problems in school. It is suggested that it is philosophically inconsistent to provide for criminal defenses based upon what appear to be 'internal' factor, such as brain tumors, but then discount defenses based on what appear to be 'external' factors, such as lead poisoning or other types of environmental factors, given the fragile assumptions of causation that this 'internal-external' distinction is based on.

Keywords: lead, lead poisoning, crime, violence, biology, sociology, environment, environmental racism, longitudinal, empirical, study, criminology, regression equations, crime prediction, juvenile offenses, adult offenses, intelligence, school achievement, socioeconomic status

Suggested Citation

Denno, Deborah W., Considering Lead Poisoning as a Criminal Defense. Fordham Urban Law Journal, Vol. 20, pp. 377-400, 1993, Available at SSRN:

Deborah W. Denno (Contact Author)

Fordham University School of Law ( email )

Fordham University School of Law
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New York, NY 10023
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