What percentage of killers are insane?
Mass murderers often not mentally ill, but seeking revenge, experts say
Those who commit mass murders are often angry and isolated, but usually aren’t mentally ill, violence experts said Friday after a shooting during the midnight screening of «The Dark Knight Rises» in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater. James Holmes was arrested as a suspect in the shooting that killed 12 people and wounded 59 others.
“It takes a certain degree of clear-headedness to plan and execute a crime like this,” said James Alan Fox, a criminal justice professor at Northeastern University in Boston, who has written several books on mass murder and school violence.
There are exceptions – Jared Loughner, who shot and killed six people in Arizona in 2011, gravely injuring then-member of Congress Gabrielle Giffords, was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Mental health experts say people with mental illness are not any more likely than anyone else to become violent, however.
Mass murderers “often times feel that they are right and everybody else is wrong,” Fox said in a telephone interview. “They really tend to externalize blame, to see other people as responsible for their problems.»
They are often socially isolated. “They tend to be a failure at life,” Fox added.
Such well-planned attacks are rare and not meant to make a statement, Fox said. “They basically want revenge,” he said. “Contrary to the common misperception that these guys suddenly snap and go berserk, these are well-planned executions.”
The film the victims were watching is loaded with violence but it’s unlikely that actually inspired the attacker, Fox said. The film was opening that night and it’s doubtful the attacker was familiar with the script.
“It was just coincidental, although it just made the situation more ambiguous for the people involved,” he said. Some of those who were in the theater said they initially first thought the shooting was part of the screening.
Early reports suggest Holmes did not have a police record and the University of Colorado has confirmed he was in the process of dropping out of a Ph.D. program in neuroscience there.
Former FBI profiler Clint van Zandt told TODAY that Holmes was almost certainly acting alone. “Today, so far, he appears to be … the lone wolf,” Van Zandt said. The attack was carefully planned, both Van Zandt and Fox said, which fits the patterns of such attackers.
“They typically plan carefully how they are going to do it, where they are going to do it, what they are going to bring and what they are going to wear,” Fox said. In this case, the victims were not deliberately chosen, although the place, a packed movie theater, probably was.
The attack may encourage copycat actions but not necessarily, Fox said. “What bothers me in situations like this is to see lists of the worst mass shootings,” he said. “It encourages people to try to break records.”
Dr. Victor Schwartz, medical director of the Jed Foundation, which works to promote mental health among college students, agreed. “The media needs to be really careful in these situations,” he said. “On the one hand, you need to report the story. On the other hand, there is the danger of sensationalizing it, almost romanticizing the drama here.”
Schwartz also advises resisting any attempts to speculate on whether violent videos or movies may have affected Holmes. “The research slants both ways,” he said. Some studies suggest that children who watch and play violent videos may become desensitized to some aspects of violence, but there is not a clear consensus.
“None of these things is caused by a single factor,” Schwartz said. “Obviously, these are always very complicated events. The impulse is to find a simple explanation for complicated situations. It is important to resist it.”
Experts say it’s almost impossible to predict attacks like this one. “Neighbors will come forward and say it was no surprise,” Fox said. “But it’s all after the fact. Beforehand, even though someone may fit a profile, we can’t predict they will do this sort of crime. It’s a very rare event and not predictable. That’s part of what makes it so scary.”
Related content from NBCNews.com:
- Theater shooter believed to be ex-graduate student at Colorado medical school
- Police: ‘Sophisticated’ booby-trap in Colorado shooting suspect’s apartment
- Witnesses react online to ‘Dark Knight’ theater shooting
Are All Murderers Mentally Ill?
In an essay published this week in the New York Review of Books, retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens gave additional insights as to why he had reversed his position on the constitutionality of the death penalty. In 1976, shortly after joining the Supreme Court, Stevens voted with the majority to uphold the death penalty in three of five state cases that came before the Court. But two years ago, he wrote in an opinion that he’d come to the conclusion that the death penalty represented a «pointless and needless extinction of life with only marginal contributions to any discernible social or public purposes.»
Among the reasons Stevens cited for his change of mind were the political motivations of prosecutors, judges, and politicians who push for the death penalty; racial biases that lead to more death penalty convictions for killers of white people than minorities; the admission of victim impact statements and the authorized banning of jurors who object to the death penalty; making juries unfairly tilted toward capital punishment; and the lack of any deterrent or other justifiable social benefit for the punishment to balance those flaws.
Stevens’ arguments are compelling. Most of them, of course, have been made before by others. But the fact that Stevens was a Supreme Court Justice who supported the death penalty for many years gives them an extra element of gravity. But in conversations this week about the impact of Stevens’ reversal, I encountered another potentially compelling argument for reconsidering the death penalty.
Elaine Whitfield Sharp is a defense attorney who has worked on hundreds of murder cases over the past 20 years. And while she thinks Stevens’ points are valid, she believes the fundamental problem with capital punishment is more basic than that.
«You see, I truly believe that murderers are mentally ill,» she explains. «Their brains don’t work like the rest of ours do. To deliberately kill someone requires crossing a profound boundary. Most of us couldn’t do it. We couldn’t even think about it. But they can. They do. Why? Because they’re mentally ill. And fundamentally, as a society, I believe it is barbaric to kill people who are ill.»
That doesn’t mean Sharp thinks murderers should be excused for their behavior or set free.
«Clearly, we need to lock these people up, and keep them away from the rest of us,» she continues. «Because they’re not going to stay within acceptable bounds. They’re a danger to others.» But she says most of us make the mistake, when we hear about a murderer, of projecting that they’re like us and simply choosing to do this heinous crime. And so, imagining ourselves doing something so terrible, we feel they should be severely punished for that choice. «But,» Sharp argues, «they’re not like us. That’s why they can do it.»
Part of why more of us don’t view murderers that way may be because of how we view what constitutes «mental illness,» or someone who is mentally ill. The legal definition of innocent by reason of insanity requires that a person not be aware of what they were doing, or the consequences of it, at the time of the crime. Likewise, the bar for exemptions of incompetence or mental retardation require an extreme level of debilitation. But many mentally ill people are far more functional than that. Indeed, most psychologists would say that all of us sit somewhere on the spectrum of traits included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV). A person who is classified as «mentally ill» simply sits at a much more extreme point along that spectrum.
So, in many ways, or until a crisis precipitates a dysfunctional episode, a mentally ill person can appear perfectly rational and «normal.» And yet, their internal world is very different. What is irrational or unreasonable to most of us can seem very reasonable to them.
«Murderers seem to have no appreciation of boundaries,» Sharp explains. «And it shows up in all aspects of their lives. Most criminals I deal with are very narcissistic. They’re blame-shifters, manipulative, and can’t feel anyone else’s pain but their own. A consistent hallmark, in fact, particularly of killers, is this extreme narcissism.» Sharp points to the book People of the Lie, by the late M. Scott Peck, as a good description of a killer’s personality disorder.
«These people are always the victim, it’s always someone else’s fault, they have no sense of other people’s boundaries, and they really can’t see how twisted that view is,» she says. «It’s a disorder.»
Most of us would view someone who’s constantly shifting blame to others and has an aggrandized view of themselves as annoying, at best, and perhaps reprehensible. But what Sharp, Peck and others are arguing is that, at least after a certain point on the spectrum, it’s actually a mental disorder, like schizophrenia or other personality disorders. As in, not something the person can control or change on their own. What’s more, as advances in neuroscience allow us sharper glimpses into the mechanics of the brain, it appears that some, if not all, of those disorders stem from biological or operational deficits in certain areas of the brain.
Dr. Jonathan H. Pincus, chair of the department of neurology at Georgetown University and the Veterans Administration Hospital, and author of the book Base Instincts: What Makes Killers Kill? told Malcolm Gladwell, for a New Yorker article in 1997, that of the criminals he’d examined, «all the violent ones were damaged.»
Pincus and his long-time collaborator, psychiatrist Dorothy Lewis, from New York University, came to the conclusion that it was a lethal combination of childhood abuse, neurological disturbances and psychiatric illness that led someone to murder. Pincus and Lewis reported that an astoundingly high percentage of the murderers they’d studied were victims of physical abuse and head trauma as children. In two of their studies, in fact, they found that 100% of their subjects had suffered previous head trauma, from one cause or another.
Dr. Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist who specializes in forensic and correctional mental health issues, agrees. «In prison populations, it’s known that 60-80% of prisoners have had serious physical and sexual abuse prior to their crimes and incarceration,» he says. «And the prevalence of that is higher on death row than elsewhere in prisons.»
Other forensic psychiatrists dispute those numbers—a 2001 New York Times article on Lewis and Pincus quoted Barbara R. Kirwin, a forensic psychologist and author who has also studied hundreds of murder defendants, as saying she’d found about 10 percent of them to have histories of childhood abuse. Kirwin said she’d seen «plenty» of people with normally competent brains who simply had a gross lack of empathy.
But to Sharp, an expert on forensic head trauma cases, the point is that «gross lack of empathy,» not the details of how it evolved. «It doesn’t matter whether the frontal lobe damage is psychiatric or traumatic,» she argues. «The result is the same.» In other words, even those «normally competent» brains reported by Kirwin are, in Sharp’s view, not really normal.
Certainly the evidence, or perhaps just awareness, of how widespread mental illness is among criminals, and especially those incarcerated for violent crimes, seems to be growing. In 1999, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) estimated the percentage of inmates suffering from a significant mental condition at 16 percent. In a comparable report issued in 2006, the BJS revised that number upward to over 50 percent.
Dr. Kupers, who published a 2008 report on mental health issues among inmates at the Los Angeles County Jail, attributed part of that increase to the de-institutionalization of psychiatric patients who, before the 1980s, would have been committed to psychiatric hospitals. He notes that in 1955, there were 550,000 people in psychiatric units in the U.S. Today, there are less than 60,000 in psychiatric hospitals, but more than a million people reportedly suffering from mental illness in various levels of county, state, and federal jails and prisons. In a 2008 random study of Iowa state prisoners, Kuper noted, researchers found that more than 90 percent met the criteria for current or lifetime psychiatric disorders.Kuper also says that «the prevalence of serious mental illness on death row would be substantially higher than in prisons in general.»
So what do we do with that information? Justice Stevens came to believe that the death penalty, as practiced, was unfair and unconstitutional, and served no justifiable social or public service. The non-profit Death Penalty Information Center argues that, because of the long appeals processes involved, condemning someone to death actually costs substantially more than simply sentencing them to life in prison.
But the point Sharp, Lewis, Pincus, and others raise is an interesting, and perhaps important one, as well. Again, Sharp and the others aren’t arguing that violent criminals and murderers should be allowed to go free. But if, in fact, murderers who commit grisly crimes do so because of warped minds—perhaps because of trauma and abuse endured as children, or perhaps because of organic, biological deficits—if, in fact, they are mentally ill in ways that make it impossible for them to see the world or appropriate boundaries and behaviors the way the rest of us do. Is it appropriate, ethical, or right to kill them for their acts? Or is it, as Sharp argues, a barbaric thing for a civilized society to do?
Or, to put it in Constitutional terms, if someone’s acts are a result of an illness they can’t control, even if the acts are deliberate, conscious and cold-blooded, does it violate the 8th Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment to condemn them to death because of those acts? It would be interesting to know where Justice Stevens would come down on that one.
5 Myths about Serial Killers and Why They Persist [Excerpt]
Much of the general public’s knowledge concerning serial homicide is a product of sensationalized and stereotypical depictions of it in the news and entertainment media. Colorful story lines are written to pique the interest of audiences, not to paint an accurate picture of serial murder.
By focusing on the larger-than-life media images of socially constructed “celebrity monsters,” the public becomes captivated by the stylized presentation of the criminals rather than the reality of their crimes. Media stereotypes and hyperbole create myths and great distortions in the public consciousness regarding the true dynamics and patterns of serial murder in the U.S.
The Reality of Serial Homicide in the U.S.
Serial killings account for no more than 1 percent of all murders committed in the U.S. Based on recent FBI crime statistics, there are approximately 15,000 murders annually, so that means there are no more than 150 victims of serial murder in the U.S. in any given year. 1 The FBI estimates that there are between twenty-five and fifty serial killers operating throughout the U.S. at any given time.
If there are fifty, then each one is responsible for an average of three murders per year. Serial killers are always present in society. However, the statistics reveal that serial homicide is quite rare and it represents a small portion of all murders committed in the U.S.
Persistent misinformation, stereotypes and hyperbole presented in the media have combined with the relative rarity of serial murder cases to foster a number of popular myths about serial murder. The most common myths about serial killers encompass such factors as their race, gender, intelligence, living conditions and victim characteristics.
Myth #1: All Serial Killers Are Men.
Reality: This is simply not true but it is understandable why the public would hold this erroneous belief. As late as 1998, a highly regarded former FBI profiler said “there are no female serial killers.” The news and entertainment media also perpetuate the stereotypes that all serial offenders are male and that women do not engage in horrible acts of violence.
When the lethality of a femme fatale is presented in book or film, she is most often portrayed as the manipulated victim of a dominant male. This popular but stereotypical media image is consistent with traditional gender myths in society which claim that boys are aggressive by nature while girls are passive. In fact, both aggressiveness and passivity can be learned through socialization and they are not gender specific.
The reality concerning the gender of serial killers is quite different than the mythology of it. Although there have been many more male serial killers than females throughout history, the presence of female serial killers is well documented in the crime data. In fact, approximately 17 percent of all serial homicides in the U.S. are committed by women. 2 Interestingly, only 10 percent of total murders in the U.S. are committed by women. Therefore, relative to men, women represent a larger percentage of serial murders than all other homicide cases in the U.S. This is an important and revealing fact that defies the popular understanding of serial murder.
Myth #2: All Serial Killers Are Caucasian.
Reality: Contrary to popular mythology, not all serial killers are white. Serial killers span all racial and ethnic groups in the U.S. The racial diversity of serial killers generally mirrors that of the overall U.S. population. There are well documented cases of African-American, Latino and Asian-American serial killers. African-Americans comprise the largest racial minority group among serial killers, representing approximately 20 percent of the total. Significantly, however, only white, and normally male, serial killers such as Ted Bundy become popular culture icons.
Although they are not household names like their infamous white counterparts, examples of prolific racial minority serial killers are Coral Eugene Watts, a black man from Michigan, known as the “Sunday Morning Slasher,” who murdered at least seventeen women in Michigan and Texas; Anthony Edward Sowell, a black man known as the “Cleveland Strangler” who kidnapped, raped and murdered eleven women in Ohio; and Rafael Resendez-Ramirez, a Mexican national known as the “Railroad Killer,” who killed as many as fifteen men and women in Kentucky, Texas, and Illinois.
Myth #3: All Serial Killers Are Isolated and Dysfunctional Loners.
Reality: The majority of serial killers are not reclusive social misfits who live alone, despite pervasive depictions of them as such in the news and entertainment media, including the socially challenged “Tooth Fairy” serial killer in the film Red Dragon. Real-life serial killers are not the isolated monsters of fiction and, frequently, they do not appear to be strange or stand out from the public in any meaningful way.
Many serial killers are able to successfully hide out in plain sight for extended periods of time. Those who successfully blend in are typically also employed, have families and homes and outwardly appear to be non-threatening, normal members of society. Because serial killers can appear to be so innocuous, they are often overlooked by law enforcement officials, as well as their own families and peers.
In some rare cases, an unidentified serial killer will even socialize and become friendly with the unsuspecting police detectives who are tracking him. The incredible tale of Ed Kemper (the “Co-ed Killer”) provides an example of this phenomenon.
Serial killers who hide out in plain sight are able to do so precisely because they look just like everyone else. It is their ability to blend in that makes them very dangerous, frightening and yet very compelling to the general public.
Myth #4: All Serial Murderers Travel Widely and Kill Interstate.
Reality: The roaming, homicidal maniac such as Freddy Krueger in the cult film A Nightmare on Elm Street is another entertainment media stereotype that is rarely found in real life. Among the most infamous serial killers, Ted Bundy is the rare exception who traveled and killed interstate. Bundy twice escaped from police custody and committed at least thirty homicides in the states of Washington, Utah, Florida, Colorado, Oregon, Idaho and California. Articulate, educated, well-groomed and charming, Bundy was truly atypical among serial killers in his cross-country killing rampage.
Unlike Bundy, most serial killers have very well defined geographic areas of operation. They typically have a comfort zone—that is, an area that they are intimately familiar with and where they like to stalk and kill their prey. Jack the Ripper provides the classic example of this geographic preference because he stalked and killed exclusively in the small Whitechapel district of London in the fall of 1888.
The comfort zone of a serial killer is often defined by an anchor point such as a place of residence or employment. Crime statistics reveal that serial killers are most likely to commit their first murder very close to their place of residence due to the comfort and familiarity it offers them. John Wayne Gacy “The Killer Clown” buried most of his thirty-three young, male victims in the crawl space beneath his house after sexually assaulting and murdering them.
Serial killers sometimes return to commit murder in an area they know well from the past such as the community in which they were raised. Over time, serial murderers may extend their activities outside of their comfort zone but only after building their confidence by executing several successful murders while avoiding detection by law enforcement authorities.
As noted by the FBI in its 2005 report on serial murder, the crime data reveal that very few serial predators actually travel interstate to kill. 3 The few serial killers who do travel interstate to kill typically fall into one of three categories: 1) Itinerant individuals who periodically move from place to place; 2) Chronically homeless individuals who live transiently; or 3) Individuals whose job function lends itself to interstate or transnational travel such as truck drivers or those in the military service.
The major difference between these individuals who kill serially and other serial murderers is the nature of their traveling lifestyle which provides them with many zones of comfort in which to operate. Most serial killers do not have such opportunities to travel and keep their killings close to home.
Myth #5: All Serial Killers Are Either Mentally Ill Or Evil Geniuses.
Reality: The images presented in the news and entertainment media suggest that serial killers either have a debilitating mental illness such as psychosis or they are brilliant but demented geniuses like Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Neither of these two stereotypes is quite accurate. Instead, serial killers are much more likely to exhibit antisocial personality disorders such as sociopathy or psychopathy, which are not considered to be mental illnesses by the American Psychiatric Association (APA). An examination of psychopathy and sociopathy, and a discussion of the powerful connection between antisocial personality disorders and serial homicide is presented in chapter 4.
In fact, very few serial killers suffer from any mental illness to such a debilitating extent that they are considered to be insane by the criminal justice system. To be classified as legally insane, an individual must be unable to comprehend that an action is against the law at the exact moment the action is undertaken. In other words, a serial killer must be unaware that murder is legally wrong while committing the act of murder in order to be legally insane. This legal categorization of insanity is so stringent and narrow that very few serial killers are actually included in it.
Psychopathic serial killers such as John Wayne Gacy and Dennis Rader are entirely aware of the illegality of murder while they are in the process of killing their victims. Their understanding of right and wrong does nothing to impede their crimes, however, because psychopaths such as Gacy and Rader have an overwhelming desire and compulsion to kill that causes them to ignore the criminal law with impunity.
When they are apprehended, serial killers rarely are determined to be mentally incompetent to stand trial and their lawyers rarely utilize an insanity defense on their behalf. Once again, this is due to the extremely narrow legal definition of insanity which simply does not apply to most psychopathic killers. Even David Berkowitz, the infamous Son of Sam, who told his captors tales of satanic rituals and demonic possession, was found to be competent to stand trial for his murders following his arrest in 1977.
Considerable mythology also surrounds the intelligence of serial killers. There is a popular culture stereotype that serial killers are cunning, criminal geniuses. This stereotype is heavily promoted by the entertainment media in television, books and films. In particular, Hollywood has established a number of brilliant homicidal maniacs like John Doe in the acclaimed 1995 film Se7en. John Doe personifies the stereotype of the evil genius serial killer who outsmarts law enforcement authorities, avoids justice and succeeds in his diabolical plan.
The image of the evil genius serial killer is mostly a Hollywood invention. Real serial killers generally do not possess unique or exceptional intellectual skills. The reality is that most serial killers who have had their IQ tested score between borderline and above average intelligence. This is very consistent with the general population. Contrary to mythology, it is not high intelligence that makes serial killers successful. Instead, it is obsession, meticulous planning and a cold-blooded, often psychopathic personality that enable serial killers to operate over long periods of time without detection.
2 Hickey, E. W. 1997. Serial Murderers and Their Victims. Belmont, Calf.: Wadsworth.