The crime scene often offers an empirical understanding of a crime : from the weapon to the time and place, but what if a crime can also be solved by studying the killer’s psychology? What place should we give to the mind of the criminal in an investigation?
Robert Ressler, the father of profiling, tried to answer these questions when he began following his desire to combine psychology and criminal cases. He created what is called “criminal profiling”, and can also be described as “a biographical sketch of behavioural patterns » (Vorpagel 1982). It was not an easy road he went down, due to how psychology was perceived in the criminal operations, which were rather focused on evidence and forensics (scientific tests and techniques used in connection with the detection of crime). Thanks to William Webster, head of the FBI, Ressler became Supervisory Special Agent at the Behavioural Science Unit at Quantico. In the late 1970’s, joined by John Douglas, he started conducting a series of interviews with some of the worst serial killers in the United States : 36 in total. The main objective of these interviews was to collect information about the murderers’ life and see the repercussions on their criminal activity. Criminal profiling comes to hand when the motives of normal killing are absent: using psychology helps to discover the peculiar traits or pathologies of the murderer. Even though not every criminal can perfectly fit in a case, some present similar patterns that can lead to narrowing the potential suspect pool. Nonetheless Ronald Holmes and Stephen Holmes in Profiling violent crimes : an investigative tool, underline how criminal profiling “remains a tool and by itself has never solved a murder case”.
A serial murder is , by definition, the unlawful killing of two or more victims by the same offender(s), in separate events (FBI National center for the analysis of violent crime, Serial murder). The key to understanding a crime is to seek for the motives behind the acts which come from the killer itself. The “making of a serial killer” is never clear and doesn’t apply precisely to every case, as will be shown later on. Many factors can lead a person to become a violent adult from causality to mental issues.
Since all human beings are the product of the environment that surrounds them, one of the factors that must be taken into account is causality (how an event can later on cause another event). A major part of a person developpement takes place during childhood when the coping mechanisms first start to progress. The presence of a violent environment can contribute to normalising such acts and therefore develop the incapacity to dissociate bad from good. In his studies on Effects of Child Abuse, Adolescent Violence, Peer Approval, and Pro-Violence Attitudes on Intimate Partner Violence in Adulthood, Todd Herrenkohl explains how a “cycle of violence” exists within families which may lead to the victim becoming, later on, the perpetrator of violence. In some cases sexual intercourse and gratification are intertwined with violence and, therefore, to abnormals interaction when growing up. All 36 interviews carried by Ressler showed that “the murderers were subjected to serious emotinal abuse”. It is nonetheless an information that needs to be carefully taken into account as shown by the study of Mitchell and Aamodt of Radford University in The incidence of child abuse in serial killers (2005), in which it is said that 32% of serial murderers do not present any sign of abuse.
Some common characteristics in serial murderers is the lack of remorse and empathy, a strong impulsivity and the need for control. All these characteristics are common to the psychopath personality disorder. It is important to underline that psychopathy does not present a total accuracy when it comes to understanding the criminal mind. Not every psychopath is a serial killer but rather : various serial killers present some psychopathic traits. Many serial murderers have a charming personality, lie pathologically, have great self-esteem but also anti-social traits and irresponsibility. Often the killers who present said characteristics do not value human life and murder in brutal ways.
To this day what makes profiling difficult is the complexity of the human mind. There is no perfect cataloguing for human beings but rather some similar traits from one to the other. There can always be an exception that undermines the efforts of the perfect criminal profiling.
Silvia Cavallini Campana