The author presents an in-depth account to the background, motivation and mental state of serial sexual killers.
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Robert K. Ressler is retired from the F.B.I. and is now associate director for Forensic Behavioral Services in Virginia.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The Study of Murder
Interpersonal violence spans a wide range of human behaviors of which murder represents one of the terminal disruptions in the equilibrium of a society. Sexual homicide, a crime of increasing concern in our society, is the killing of a person in the context of power, sexuality, and brutality. Such crimes often receive widespread publicity, and they create a great deal of fear because of their apparent random and motiveless nature. Particularly in cases of serial sexual homicide, law enforcement officials feel public pressure to apprehend the perpetrator as quickly as possible.
Apprehension of the sexual murderer is one of law enforcement's most difficult challenges. Because sexual killings often appear motiveless and random, they offer few clues about why the murder occurred or, consequently, about the identity of the murderer. Even the sexual nature of these murders is not always immediately obvious, for conventional evidence of a sexual crime may be absent from a crime scene.
The Scope of the Problem
The number of sexual homicides occurring in a given year is difficult to assess, partially because of the manner in which crimes are investigated. In obvious cases of sexual assault and murder, the crime most often is reported as a homicide, not as a rape assault (Brownmiller 1975; MacDonald 1971). In other cases, conclusive evidence of sexual assault may be inadequate or lacking (Groth and Burgess 1977). Investigators may not recognize the underlying sexual dynamics of what appear to be either ordinary or motiveless murders (Cormier and Simons 1969; Revitch 1965). In addition, investigators often fail to share their findings, limiting the collective pool of knowledge on the subject (Ressler et al. 1980).
The difficulty in determining the scope of the problem of sexual homicide is reflected in official reports on murder. The FBI's Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) publication, Crime in the United States, presents statistics for crimes committed in the United States within a given year. For example, a survey of the statistics in the UCR for all murders committed in the period 1976 through 1986 shows that the number of murders in the United States has fluctuated from 16,605 in 1976 to a peak of 21,860 in 1980, dropping to 20,613 in 1986 (Crime in the United States 1986). The UCR also gives information about age, race, and sex of victims and offenders, about types of weapons used, and about situations in which killings took place. However, there is no differentiation in these official reports between homicides that included initially undetected sexual assault and those that did not.
The dearth of incidence statistics for sexual homicide promotes other approaches to evaluating this crime's magnitude. One of these approaches is to examine statistics for murders with unknown motives as indicators of the sexual homicide. Murder with unknown motive is one of five homicide categories for which the UCR annually provides data. These categories are as follows:
1. Felony murder (occurs during the commission of a felony).
2. Suspected felony murder (elements of felony are present).
3. Argument-motivated murder (noncriminally motivated).
4. Other motives or circumstances (any known motivation that is not included in previous categories).
5. Unknown motives (motive fits into none of the above categories).
Because sexual homicide so often appears random, motiveless, and with its sexual aspects obscured, some experts argue that many sexual homicides may be reported in the unknown motive category.
Figures for most categories of motives, except the unknown category, have remained relatively stable over the past decade. For example, felony-connected murders represented 17.7 percent of all murders in 1976, 17.2 percent in 1981, 18.0 percent in 1984, and 19.4 percent in 1986. The percentages for those murders placed in the "other" category are as follows: 1976, 18.6 percent; 1981, 17.1 percent; 1984, 17.6 percent, and 1986, 18.6 percent.
However, the number of murders committed for unknown motives has risen dramatically. These murders represented 8.5 percent of all murders in 1976, 17.8 percent in 1981, 22.1 percent in 1984, and 22.5 percent in 1986. This trend is of particular interest in the study of sexual homicide. Opinion has varied on the importance of this problem. Sociologists Wolfgang and Ferracuti proposed that the vast majority of murders are committed for a specific reason and that "probably less than 5 percent of all known killings are premeditated, planned, and intentional" (1982, 189). On the other hand, in a 1969 article psychiatrists Cormier and Simons cite studies observing that dangerous sexual offenses are both rare phenomena and nonescalating in aggression; in contrast, their data suggest that sexual murderers may be more common than we wish to acknowledge and that they do in fact have progressively violent records. The rapid increase in the unknown motive category, while most categories have held relatively steady, is an indication that the Wolfgang and Ferracuti proposition, first noted in 1967, may no longer be valid. Reporting methods for the unknown motive category have remained constant since 1976 and thus do not account for the dramatic increase in motiveless murder.
Although the incidence of sexual homicide may be difficult to ascertain, its effects are less unclear. Many sexual homicides are difficult to solve precisely because of the lack of clues. Law enforcement investigators note that solution rates may be misleading and should be scrutinized closely, since some crimes reported as unsolved are, in fact, solved after the figures have been reported. It is the belief of both investigators and clinicians that the majority of serial murders are sexual in nature (Lunde 1976; Ressler et al. 1985; Revitch 1965).
Veteran investigators say that sexual homicide is not a new phenomenon, although its apparent increase is. Public awareness of the problem has also increased, largely because of news media attention to these often bizarre, sensational crimes. People fear these crimes precisely because of the seemingly random nature of the murders.
Studies of Murder
Because of society's view of murder as both abhorrent and pervasive, the many aspects of murder have been studied by various disciplines. Law enforcement, the newcomer to the research arena, has added over the past decade its growing expertise in crime scene analysis.
Studies of murder have offered different perspectives on this violent crime. Epidemiological studies report on demographic data concerning victims and perpetrators (Constantino et al. 1977) and patterns of homicide (Rushforth et al. 1977; Wolfgang 1958). All disciplines have tried to categorize murderers. They have been typed in terms of motive (Revitch 1965), intent (Kahn 1971), number of victims (Frazier 1974), and type of victim (Cormier and Simons 1969). However, the majority of studies do not specifically address sexual homicide but rather study murder without differentiating between sexual and nonsexual crimes (Perdue and Lester 1974).
Studies examining murder divide into the various disciplines focusing on the subject: (1) individual case reports by journalists, (2) studies of the psychological aspects of the individual who committed the murder, (3) studies investigating murder and murderers within a sociological context, (4) legal aspects of the crime, and (5) crime scene patterns.
The Journalist's Perspective
The first category represents a mass communication mechanism for informing the public of crimes being committed. As such, the possible mechanisms include newspapers, magazines, and books. The writers are usually journalists, and on occasion they may have additional training like Joseph Wambaugh, formerly a police detective, who wrote The Onion Field, which depicts the murder of a police officer.
The news of a murder in general and a sexual homicide in particular arouses strong emotion in the public. Newspaper headlines highlight the bizarre aspects ("Body-hack Case," "Vampire Killer's Trial Begins"), the victim ("The Victim's Last Hours"), the serial aspect ("Killer Strikes Again"), the outcome ("Next Stop: The Electric Chair") and the twenty-year anniversary ("July 14, 1966").
Detective magazines are another mechanism for communication and often contain the facts learned at trial or during a journalist's investigation. In addition, journalists (Keyes 1976), as well as mental health professionals (Brussel 1968; Schreiber 1983), write books aimed at the general population.
The Psychological View
The second category includes studies that examine the individual murderer in terms of psychiatric diagnoses, childhood antecedents to criminal behavior, and criminal behavior as the result of learned responses to particular stimuli. Also in this category are studies designed to determine techniques for treating incarcerated violent offenders.
Study focus on the characteristics of individual murderers was evident as many as two hundred years ago. In the late eighteenth century, Swiss mystic Johann Kaspar Lavatar developed the art of physiognomy, whereby an individual's facial features were held to reveal his or her character. At about the same time, Franz Josef Gall contended that phrenology, the study of the formation of an individual's skull, could disclose both character and mental capacities. Physiognomy and phrenology were both used to study criminals, and death masks of murderers' heads were examined in an attempt to explain criminal acts (Attick 1970).
Among more recent theories that seek to explain violent human behavior through examination of individual physical characteristics is the approach based on the finding that certain violent criminals have a rare chromosomal abnormality called XYY (Jacobs, Brunton, and Melville 1965). According to this theory, the presence of an extra male, or Y, chromosome results in a greater likelihood that the individual will engage in aggressive and violent behavior. This idea received a great deal of attention in 1968, when it was reported that Richard Speck, the man who one night murdered eight student nurses, had the XYY abnormality. It was later found that Speck did not have the extra Y chromosome. Subsequent research demonstrated that although the XYY abnormality is four times more likely to show up in the male criminal population than in the general male population, most individuals with this condition display no abnormally violent behavior (Bootzin and Acocella 1980).
In the last decade, the field of psychiatry has paid increasing attention to brain function in all types of psychological problems. Neurological, genetic, and biophysiological components are being studied in the murderer (Lewis et al. 1986; Morrison 1981).
Psychological theories and explanations of violent behavior are substantially more common than those based on physical characteristics. As do studies based on individual physical attributes, these psychological studies focus on the characteristics of the individual murderer. According to Bootzin and Acocella (1980), psychological theories can be categorized as having either (1) a psychodynamic perspective (that unconscious childhood conflicts give rise to abnormal behavior), (2) a behavioral perspective (that inappropriate conditioning results in abnormal behavior), or (3) a humanistic-existential perspective (that abnormal behavior), results from a sense of personal failure).
Although individual-focused studies of violent behavior may be widely divergent in terms of their theoretical bases, they often have one thing in common: they group individuals into various categories. By producing taxonomic schemes to aid in understanding the causes of human violence, researchers seek to clarify methods of treating violent individuals and eliminating violent behavior.
Among recent general studies of human violence, several propose typologies having many categories. For example, Wille (1974) groups murderers into ten types: (1) depressives, (2) psychotics, (3) murderers with organic brain dysfunction, (4) psychopaths, (5) passive-aggressive individuals, (6) alcoholics, (7) hysterical personalities, (8) child killers, (9) mentally retarded murderers, and (10) murderers who kill for sexual satisfaction. In contrast, Guttmacher (1973) suggests six categories of murderers: (1) "average" murderers free from prominent psychopathology but lacking societal values, (2) sociopaths desiring revenge on the population at large for maltreatment during childhood, (3) alcoholics who kill their wives over fear of losing them, (4) murderers avenging a lover's loss of interest, (5) schizophrenics responding to hallucinations and delusions, and (6) sadists who kill to achieve sexual pleasure.
Other researchers have suggested fewer types of murderers. Megargee (1966) claims that there are only two types of extremely assaultive individuals (1) undercontrolled persons, who respond with aggression when frustrated or provoked, and (2) overcontrolled persons, who, despite rigid inhibitions against the expression of violence, build up an aggression that eventually results in violence. Simon (1977) studied thirty murderers and classified them into three groups: type A murderers had a tendency to murder impulsively, often with a weapon present and under the influence of alcohol. Type B murderers were more likely to be involved in a victim-induced homicide, with the victim usually a woman with whom the murderer had formed a relationship. Type AB murderers were able to sustain enduring, though sadistic, relationships with their victims and posed the greatest risk of future homicidal acts. Tanay (1972) has classified homicidal behavior into three categories: (1) ego-syntonic homicide, compatible with the offender's thinking and fulfills a consciously acceptable wish for the perpetrator; (2) ego-dystonic homicide, noncompatible with the offender's thinking and occurs against the conscious wishes of the perpetrator (who is in an altered state of consciousness); and (3) psychotic homicide, which occurs while the murderer is in a delusional state.
The few studies that specifically address sexual homicide suggest the existence of two types of sex murderers: the rape or displaced anger murderer (Cohen et al. 1971; Groth, Burgess, and Holmstrom, 1977; Prentky, Burgess, and Carter 1986; Rada 1978), and the sadistic, or lust, murderer (Becker and Abel 1978; Bromberg and Coyle 1974; Cohen et al. 1971; Groth, Burgess, and Holmstrom 1977; Guttmacher and Weihofen 1952; Podolsky 1966; Prentky, Burgess, and Carter 1986; Rada 1978; Ressler 1985; and Scully and Marolla 1985). Podolsky notes that rapists who murder kill after raping their victims, primarily to escape detection. These murderers, according to Rada, rarely report sexual satisfaction from their murders or perform postmortem sexual acts with their victims. In contrast, the sadistic murderer kills as part of a ritualized, sadistic fantasy (Groth, Burgess, and Holmstrom 1977). For this murderer, aggression and sexuality become fused into a single psychological experience -- sadism -- in which aggression is eroticized. According to Brittain (1970), subjugation of the victim is of importance to this type of sexual killer; cruelty and infliction of pain are merely the means to effect subjugation.
The various systems for classifying murderers have themselves been categorized. According to Athens (1980), the first system type a...
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