When the police arrived at Bradley Waldroup’s trailer home in the mountains of Tennessee, they found a war zone. There was blood on the walls, blood on the carpet, blood on the truck outside, even blood on the Bible that Waldroup had been reading before all hell broke loose.
Assistant District Attorney Drew Robinson says that on Oct. 16, 2006, Waldroup was waiting for his estranged wife to arrive with their four kids for the weekend. He had been drinking, and when his wife said she was leaving with her friend, Leslie Bradshaw, they began to fight. Soon, Waldroup had shot Bradshaw eight times and sliced her head open with a sharp object. When Waldroup was finished with her, he chased after his wife, Penny, with a machete, chopping off her finger and cutting her over and over.
“There are murders and then there are … hacking to death, trails of blood,” says prosecutor Cynthia Lecroy-Schemel. “I have not seen one like this. And I have done a lot.”
Prosecutors charged Waldroup with the felony murder of Bradshaw, which carries the death penalty, and attempted first-degree murder of his wife. It seemed clear to them that Waldroup’s actions were intentional and premeditated.
“There were numerous things he did around the crime scene that were conscious choices,” Lecroy-Schemel says. “One of them was [that] he told his children to ‘come tell your mama goodbye,’ because he was going to kill her. And he had the gun, and he had the machete.”
There was no question that Waldroup was guilty, he admitted it. The question was why…so the defense team reached out to Bernet for excuses answers:
Since 2004, Dr. William Bernet of Vanderbilt University and laboratory director Cindy Vnencak-Jones have been analyzing the DNA of people like Waldroup. They’ve tested some 30 criminal defendants, most of whom were charged with murder. They were looking for a particular variant of the MAO-A gene — also known as the warrior gene because it has been associated with violence. Bernet says they found that Waldroup has the high-risk version of the gene.
“His genetic makeup, combined with his history of child abuse, together created a vulnerability that he would be a violent adult,” Bernet explains.
Over the fierce opposition of prosecutors, the judge allowed Bernet to testify in court that these two factors help explain why Waldroup snapped that murderous night.
“We didn’t say these things made him become violent, but they certainly constituted a risk factor or a vulnerability,” Bernet says.
Bernet cited scientific studies over the past decade that found that the combination of the high-risk gene and child abuse increases one’s chances of being convicted of a violent offense by more than 400 percent. He notes that other studies have not found a connection between the MAO-A gene and violence — but he told the jury that he felt the genes and childhood abuse were a dangerous cocktail.
“A person doesn’t choose to have this particular gene or this particular genetic makeup,” Bernet says. “A person doesn’t choose to be abused as a child. So I think that should be taken into consideration when we’re talking about criminal responsibility.”
Prosecutor Drew Robinson brought in his own expert:
To rebut Bernet’s testimony, Robinson called in his own expert: psychiatrist Terry Holmes, the clinical director of Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute in Chattanooga, Tenn. Holmes urged the jury to ignore it.
“This was somebody who was intoxicated and mad and was gonna hurt somebody,” Holmes says. “And it had little to nothing to do with his genetic makeup.”
Holmes says it’s way too early to use this research in a court of law. And he believes Bernet is spinning the data.
In the end, the jury bought Bernet’s testimony. Waldroup walked away with a conviction for voluntary manslaughter instead of first degree murder, with 32 years in prison instead of a potential death penalty.
So again, what Bernet seems so good at, is coming up with reasons to excuse what abusers do. Something to cover their asses, while a few bucks are made for “expert testimony” services.
What would really be noble is if Bernet would promote this “warrior gene” test for a prerequisite to get married. Identify the murderous, abusive assholes before we commit to them. This may save countless women and children’s lives….oh wait, that would cut into their “parental alienation disorder” business. Well, it was a good idea at least…
To listen to the National Public Radio story on this (WARNING: Graphic descriptions of violence) and read original story, please click here.