When 14 year old Ben Rifkin is found dead in the woods with three stab wounds in his chest, Newton, MA, once considered a “child’s paradise” loses its innocence. Assistant DA Andy Barber considers it a high priority case and decides to prosecute it himself until his 14 year old son Jacob is charged with the crime. There’s lots of circumstantial evidence: Jacob owns a knife, but it’s disappeared; he was seen in the area at the time of the murder, but so were lots of other people; his bloody fingerprint is found on the victim’s jacket, but Jacob claims he was trying to see if the kid was alive.
What sets William Landay’s Defending Jacob apart from other courtroom thrillers is the intriguing question at the center of its plot. Does a murder gene exist?
If it does, can such a gene be inherited? I’m not a scientist, but I do know that because my mother and father had blue eyes, I and all my siblings also have blue eyes. If diseases such as cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, hypertension, and cancer can be traced back through a family, it makes sense that a murder gene might well exist. A murder gene would be harder to detect than eye color, and other than insisting on a complete genetic workup before you sign the marriage license, you can’t know for sure if your potential spouse has such a gene or if your children will inherit it.
Andy Barber and his family will come to ponder the possibilities of inherited violence as they mount a defense for Jacob.
Andy is consumed by courtroom strategy, and Jacob seems like any 14 year old, a combination of sweet and sullen. My own empathy is for Laurie, who suffers the most because she cannot get her head around the possibility that her son might be a killer. And, Laurie says to Andy, “it’s possible that it might just be our fault.” How would it feel to know you might have been responsible for raising a killer?
Readers will be divided about how Laurie comes to terms with her situation, but if I were in her shoes, I think I might do the very same thing.
Laurie, in her bid to understand what’s happening, takes Jacob to a behavioral scientist. Dr Vogel explains to the family that even if a “murder gene” could be detected, the
“same genetic sequence in one individual may produce a completely different result in different individuals and different environments. What we’re talking about here is just a genetic predisposition. Predisposition is not predestination.”
To provide a more definitive diagnosis, Dr. Vogel wants to take a DNA sample from Jacob and Andy to determine if their genes might be encoded for violence. Barber says that all the talk about a murder gene is junk science designed to manipulate juries, and he’s never been violent a day in his life.
“I’ve never hurt anyone. I don’t have a temper. That’s just not me. I never even played football. . . . There was no violence in our house.”
Dr. Vogel makes clear that human behavior is complex, the science is very advanced, and a pattern for violence can be detected. The variant she will look for is the MAOA gene which is “located on the X chromosome.” It’s “been called the ‘warrior gene’ because of its association with aggressive behavior.” Barber’s extreme reluctance to offer his DNA is less about Jacob’s guilt or innocence than a past he has kept secret from everyone for 30 years.
The family DNA is analyzed and the doctor sums up her findings concerning Jacob.
“The best way to summarize this entire constellation of observation—lack of empathy, difficulties with impulse control, occasional cruelty—is to say that Jacob resembles the Grinch of Dr. Seuss: ‘His heart is two sizes too small.’”
But does that make him a murderer?
Susan Amper, author of How to Write About Edgar Allan Poe, still mourns the loss of her Nancy Drew collection.