Plenty of priors for murder suspect's father

Plenty of priors for murder suspect's father

Two days after Michael Stuart Pritchett and William Douglas Gentry, Jr. were arrested for the murder of Jayne Warren McGowan, Pritchett’s grandfather issued a public statement of his "deepest regrets" to McGowans’s family. It brought the family of the alleged killers into the light, making a connection that is often put forward when evaluating the sins of a child in relation to the parent. As such, it is perhaps a relevant question with someone like Gentry.
A quick background check revealed a petty larceny on Gentry’s record dating to 2003. Perhaps as telling is the criminal record of his father, William Douglas Gentry, Sr., who had a number of infractions in 1989 and 1990 that resulted in charges of larceny and burglary for actions like breaking into someone’s house and taking their crossbow. Gentry, Jr., who is now 22, would have only been 4 or 5 when his father was making regular appearances in court and jail.

William Douglas Gentry, Jr., who is now 22, would have only been 4 or 5 when his father was making regular appearances in court and jail. Gentry, Jr. is now being charged with the murder of Jayne Warren McGowan.

Let’s be clear: Gentry and Pritchett are only alleged to have killed McGowan. But the background of Gentry’s father raises the larger question of the links between a parent’s criminal behavior and their descendants’ life choices.

UVA professor and forensic psychologist Dewey Cornell says in an e-mail that while the idea of a so-called "crime gene"—popular for more than a century—has generally been discounted, "there are likely to be characteristics that could predispose someone toward criminal behavior," specifying such traits as impulsivity, low intelligence, greediness, aggressiveness and low tolerance for frustration.

"These characteristics have genetic as well as environmental origins," Cornell writes. "When it comes to crime, the answer to the nature-versus- nurture question is usually ‘both.’"

"As adults, we are products of what we’ve been exposed to in our formative years," says Police Chief Tim Longo, using as an example instances where an abused child becomes an abuser. "It’s relatively safe to say it can influence the future behavior of a child."

"It is certainly the case that people who are genetically related to people with criminal records are more likely to be criminals themselves," writes Eric Turkheimer, a UVA psychology professor and behavior genetics expert, in an e-mail. But, he notes, this sort of pattern is true in general. "People are more similar in every way to people to whom they are genetically related," pointing to the fact that those with close relatives who are divorced are more likely to end up divorced themselves. "So while it would be correct to say that there is potentially a genetic connection between the criminality of father and son, it would be wrong to imply that there is some kind of ‘violence gene’ that is getting passed down," he says. "Rather, it is just a general consequence of the universal similarity among genetically related people."

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