Myth: Serial killers are all white males.
Contrary to popular belief, serial killers span all racial groups. There are white, African-American, Hispanic, and Asian serial killers. The racial diversification of serial killers generally mirrors that of the overall U.S. population.
Myth: Serial killers are only motivated by sex.
All serial murders are not sexually-based. There are many other motivations for serial murders including anger, thrill, financial gain, and attention seeking.
Myth: All serial murderers travel and operate interstate.
Most serial killers have very defined geographic areas of operation. They conduct their killings within comfort zones that are often defined by an anchor point (e.g. place of residence, employment, or residence of a relative). Serial murderers will, at times, spiral their activities outside of their comfort zone, when their confidence has grown through experience or to avoid detection. Very few serial murderers travel interstate to kill.
The few serial killers who do travel interstate to kill fall into a few categories:
• Itinerant individuals who move from place to place.
• Homeless individuals who are transients.
• Individuals whose employment lends itself to interstate or transnational travel, such as truck drivers or those in military service.
The difference between these types of offenders and other serial murderers is the nature of their traveling lifestyle, which provides them with many zones of comfort in which to operate.
Myth: Serial killers cannot stop killing.
It has been widely believed that once serial killers start killing, they cannot stop. There are, however, some serial killers who stop murdering altogether before being caught. In these instances, there are events or circumstances in offenders’ lives that inhibit them from pursuing more victims. These can include increased participation in family activities, sexual substitution, and other diversions.
Myth: All Serial killers are insane or are evil geniuses.
Another myth that exists is that serial killers have either a debilitating mental condition, or they are extremely clever and intelligent.
As a group, serial killers suffer from a variety of personality disorders, including psychopathy, anti-social personality, and others. Most, however, are not adjudicated as insane under the law.
The media has created a number of fictional serial killer “geniuses”, who outsmart law enforcement at every turn. Like other populations, however, serial killers range in intelligence from borderline to above average levels.
Myth: Serial killers want to get caught.
Offenders committing a crime for the first time are inexperienced. They gain experience and confidence with each new offense, eventually succeeding with few mistakes or problems.
While most serial killers plan their offenses more thoroughly than other criminals, the learning curve is still very steep. They must select, target, approach, control, and dispose of their victims. The logistics involved in committing a murder and disposing of the body can become very complex, especially when there are multiple sites involved.
As serial killers continue to offend without being captured, they can become empowered, feeling they will never be identified. As the series continues, the killers may begin to take shortcuts when committing their crimes. This often causes the killers to take more chances, leading to identification by law enforcement. It is not that serial killers want to get caught; they feel that they can’t get caught.
II. Definition of Serial Murder
In the past thirty years, multiple definitions of serial murder have been used by law enforcement, clinicians, academia, and researchers. While these definitions do share several common themes, they differ on specific requirements, such as the number of murders involved, the types of motivation, and the temporal aspects of the murders. To address these discrepancies, attendees at the Serial Murder Symposium examined the variations in order to develop a single definition for serial murder.
Previous definitions of serial murder specified a certain number of murders, varying from two to ten victims. This quantitative requirement distinguished a serial murder from other categories of murder (i.e. single, double, or triple murder).
Most of the definitions also required a period of time between the murders. This break-in-time was necessary to distinguish between a mass murder and a serial murder. Serial murder required a temporal separation between the different murders, which was described as: separate occasions, cooling-off period, and emotional cooling-off period.
Generally, mass murder was described as a number of murders (four or more) occurring during the same incident, with no distinctive time period between the murders. These events typically involved a single location, where the killer murdered a number of victims in an ongoing incident (e.g. the 1984 San Ysidro McDonalds incident in San Diego, California; the 1991 Luby’s Restaurant massacre in Killeen, Texas; and the 2007 Virginia Tech murders in Blacksburg, Virginia).
There has been at least one attempt to formalize a definition of serial murder through legislation. In 1998, a federal law was passed by the United States Congress, titled: Protection of Children from Sexual Predator Act of 1998 (Title 18, United States Code, Chapter 51, and Section 1111). This law includes a definition of serial killings:
The term ‘serial killings’ means a series of three or more killings, not less than one of which was committed within the United States, having common characteristics such as to suggest the reasonable possibility that the crimes were committed by the same actor or actors.
Although the federal law provides a definition of serial murder, it is limited in its application. The purpose of this definition was to set forth criteria establishing when the FBI could assist local law enforcement agencies with their investigation of serial murder cases. It was not intended to be a generic definition for serial murder.
The Symposium attendees reviewed the previous definitions and extensively discussed the pros and cons of the numerous variations. The consensus of the Symposium attendees was to create a simple but broad definition, designed for use primarily by law enforcement.
One discussion topic focused on the determination of the number of murders that constituted a serial murder. Academicians and researchers were interested in establishing a specific number of murders, to allow clear inclusion criteria for their research on serial killers. However, since the definition was to be utilized by law enforcement, a lower number of victims would allow law enforcement more flexibility in committing resources to a potential serial murder investigation.
Motivation was another central element discussed in various definitions; however, attendees felt motivation did not belong in a general definition, as it would make the definition overly complex.
The validity of spree murder as a separate category was discussed at great length. The general definition of spree murder is two or more murders committed by an offender or offenders, without a cooling-off period. According to the definition, the lack of a cooling-off period marks the difference between a spree murder and a serial murder. Central to the discussion was the definitional problems relating to the concept of a cooling-off period. Because it creates arbitrary guidelines, the confusion surrounding this concept led the majority of attendees to advocate disregarding the use of spree murder as a separate category. The designation does not provide any real benefit for use by law enforcement.
The different discussion groups at the Symposium agreed on a number of similar factors to be included in a definition. These included:
• one or more offenders
• two or more murdered victims
• incidents should be occurring in separate events, at different times
• the time period between murders separates serial murder from mass murder
In combining the various ideas put forth at the Symposium, the following definition was crafted:
Serial Murder: The unlawful killing of two or more victims by the same offender(s), in separate events.
III. Causality and the Serial Murderer
Following the arrest of a serial killer, the question is always asked: How did this person become a serial murderer? The answer lies in the development of the individual from birth to adulthood. Specifically, the behavior a person displays is influenced by life experiences, as well as certain biological factors. Serial murderers, like all human beings, are the product of their heredity, their upbringing, and the choices they make throughout development. Causality, as it relates to the development of serial murderers, was discussed at length by the Symposium attendees.
Causality can be defined as a complex process based on biological, social, and environmental factors. In addition to these factors, individuals have the ability to choose to engage in certain behaviors. The collective outcome of all of these influences separates individual behavior from generic human behavior. Since it is not possible to identify all of the factors that influence normal human behavior, it similarly is not possible to identify all of the factors that influence an individual to become a serial murderer.
Human beings are in a constant state of development from the moment of conception until death. Behavior is affected by stimulation received and processed by the central nervous system. Neurobiologists believe that our nervous systems are environmentally sensitive, thereby allowing individual nervous systems to be shaped throughout a lifetime.
The development of social coping mechanisms begins early in life and continues to progress as children learn to interact, negotiate, and compromise with their peers. In some individuals the failure to develop adequate coping mechanisms results in violent behavior.
Neglect and abuse in childhood have been shown to contribute to an increased risk of future violence. Substance abuse can and does lead to increased aggression and violence. There are documented cases of people who suffered severe head injuries and ultimately become violent, even when there was no prior history of violence.
Symposium attendees agreed that there is no single identifiable cause or factor that leads to the development of a serial killer. Rather, there are a multitude of factors that contribute to their development. The most significant factor is the serial killer’s personal decision in choosing to pursue their crimes.
There were several additional observations made by the attendees regarding causality:
• Predisposition to serial killing, much like other violent offenses, is biological, social, and psychological in nature, and it is not limited to any specific characteristic or trait.
• The development of a serial killer involves a combination of these factors, which exist together in a rare confluence in certain individuals. They have the appropriate biological predisposition, molded by their psychological makeup, which is present at a critical time in their social development.
• There are no specific combinations of traits or characteristics shown to differentiate serial
killers from other violent offenders.
• There is no generic template for a serial killer.
• Serial killers are driven by their own unique motives or reasons.
• Serial killers are not limited to any specific demographic group, such as their sex,
age, race, or religion.
• The majority of serial killers who are sexually motivated erotized violence during development. For them, violence and sexual gratification are inexplicably intertwined
in their psyche.
• More research is needed to identify specific pathways of development that produce serial killers.
IV. Psychopathy and Serial Murder
Attendees at the Serial Murder Symposium agreed that there is no generic profile of a serial murderer. Serial killers differ in many ways, including their motivations for killing and their behavior at the crime scene. However, attendees did identify certain traits common to some serial murderers, including sensation seeking, a lack of remorse or guilt, impulsivity, the need for control, and predatory behavior. These traits and behaviors are consistent with the psychopathic personality disorder. Attendees felt it was very important for law enforcement and other professionals in the criminal justice system to understand psychopathy and its relationship to serial murder.
Psychopathy is a personality disorder manifested in people who use a mixture of charm, manipulation, intimidation, and occasionally violence to control others, in order to satisfy their own selfish needs. Although the concept of psychopathy has been known for centuries, Dr. Robert Hare led the modern research effort to develop a series of assessment tools, to evaluate the personality traits and behaviors attributable to psychopaths.
Dr. Hare and his associates developed the Psychopathy Check List Revised (PCL-R) and its derivatives, which provide a clinical assessment of the degree of psychopathy an individual possesses. These instruments measure the distinct cluster of personality traits and socially-deviant behaviors of an individual, which fall into four factors: interpersonal, affective, lifestyle, and anti-social.
The interpersonal traits include glibness, superficial charm, a grandiose sense of self-worth, pathological lying, and the manipulation of others. The affective traits include a lack of remorse and/or guilt, shallow affect, a lack of empathy, and failure to accept responsibility. The lifestyle behaviors include stimulation-seeking behavior, impulsivity, irresponsibility, parasitic orientation, and a lack of realistic life goals. The anti-social behaviors include poor behavioral controls, early childhood behavior problems, juvenile delinquency, revocation of conditional release, and criminal versatility. The combination of these individual personality traits, interpersonal styles, and socially deviant lifestyles are the framework of psychopathy and can manifest themselves differently in individual psychopaths.
Research has demonstrated that in those offenders who are psychopathic, scores vary, ranging from a high degree of psychopathy to some measure of psychopathy. However, not all violent offenders are psychopaths and not all psychopaths are violent offenders. If violent offenders are psychopathic, they are able to assault, rape, and murder without concern for legal, moral, or social consequences. This allows them to do what they want, whenever they want.
The relationship between psychopathy and serial killers is particularly interesting. All psychopaths do not become serial murderers. Rather, serial murderers may possess some or many of the traits consistent with psychopathy. Psychopaths who commit serial murder do not value human life and are extremely callous in their interactions with their victims. This is particularly evident in sexually motivated serial killers who repeatedly target, stalk, assault, and kill without a sense of remorse. However, psychopathy alone does not explain the motivations of a serial killer.
Understanding psychopathy becomes particularly critical to law enforcement during a serial murder investigation and upon the arrest of a psychopathic serial killer. The crime scene behavior of psychopaths is likely to be distinct from other offenders. This distinct behavior can assist law enforcement in linking serial cases.
Psychopaths are not sensitive to altruistic interview themes, such as sympathy for their victims or remorse/guilt over their crimes. They do possess certain personality traits that can be exploited, particularly their inherent narcissism, selfishness, and vanity. Specific themes in past successful interviews of psychopathic serial killers focused on praising their intelligence, cleverness, and skill in evading capture.
Attendees recognized that more research is needed concerning the links between serial murder and psychopathy, in order to understand the frequency and degree of psychopathy among serial murderers. This may assist law enforcement in understanding and identifying serial murderers.
V. Motivations and Types of Serial Murder: The Symposium Model
Over the past twenty years, law enforcement and experts from a number of varying disciplines have attempted to identify specific motivations for serial murderers and to apply those motivations to different typologies developed for classifying serial murderers. These range from simple, definitive models to complex, multiple-category typologies that are laden with inclusion requirements. Most typologies are too cumbersome to be utilized by law enforcement during an active serial murder investigation, and they may not be helpful in identifying an offender.
Defense Investigation Group, Inc.
Dedicated to the Prevention of Wrongful Convictions
Understanding Serial Killers
In the past 34 years, I have had an opportunity to have had long and numerous conversations with several convicted serial killers. These individuals include Randy Craft, Lonnie Franklin (Grim Sleeper), Bobby Maxwell (Skidrow Stabber) and Chester Turner. Los Angeles' most notorious killer include Timothy McGee and the son of Angelo Buono "Hillside Strangler".
L.E. seems to stop investigating after "catching" "the" serial killer and they begin to celebrate their great investigation. The problem is that the other(s) involved are never apprehended. There are crime partners of many of these serial killers still on the streets and the cases are closed. If LE would have continued their investigation another two steps, they would discover what I'm talking about. A detective's arrogance is the defense's best friend.
Defense of Serial Murder Defendants
This information is based on my experience being the defense investigator on two (2) of Los Angeles Counties most famous serial murder cases and my experience with about 400 murder cases. I work with an associate on serial murder cases and he has experience working on three (3) serial murder cases. Possibly the most by any defense investigation team in America.