Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Literary Forensics

The Subconscious Speaks

The ransom note (pg 1)
The ransom note (pg 1)
When six-year-old JonBenet Ramsey was found murdered in her Boulder, Colorado home the day after Christmas in 1996, a three-page ransom note became a crucial piece of evidence. Investigators discovered that it had been written on a tablet in the Ramsey home, with a pen from inside the home, and that whoever wrote it made a demand for $118,000 for the safe return of JonBenet. Her father, John Ramsey, was to wait by the phone for a call with instructions from a "group of individuals who represent a small foreign faction," a.k.a, the S. B. T. C.

Despite the note's warning, John and Patsy Ramsey immediately called in the police. Then when the deadline for the kidnappers' call came and went with no communication, a search of the home turned up the child's body in a basement room. She lay on her back, her bound arms over her head, and she was wrapped in a white blanket. A piece of black duct tape was wrapped tightly over her mouth. Although she was dressed, nearby lay her favorite pink nightgown.

John and Patsy Ramsey (AP)
John and Patsy Ramsey (AP)
Her father immediately ripped off the tape and carried the body upstairs. The dead child was laid out and covered with a blanket. All of these acts seriously corrupted the crime scene and made many issues difficult to resolve later. At the very least, it had been over fourteen hours since she had died (estimating from when her mother, Patsy, had made the 911 call), and possibly as long as twenty-two.

While the obvious suspects were the parents, a grand jury failed to indict them with the evidence presented. The crime remains unsolved, although one psychiatrist has stepped forward to say that not only is it clear who committed the crime, but it's also clear as to why. It's all in the note. You just have to know how to read between the lines.

In his book, Who Will Speak for JonBenet?, Andrew G. Hodges makes some bold claims about the information that the ransom note actually reveals, and he draws on a discipline called psycholinguistics to discuss his notion of "thoughtprints." Inspired by the work of Dr. Robert Langs, who in the 1970s observed a superior form of intelligence in the subliminal messages of his patients, Hodges goes on to claim that every action we take has an underlying motive the subconscious knows what it is. Not only that, but the deeper mind then nudges the person with the fact that he or she has "unfinished business" and communicates that in various ways, specifically via written communication. That means that reading thoughtprints can become an entirely new approach to forensic document analysis.

Hodges is a psychiatrist in Birmingham Alabama. Author of The Deeper Mind, he believes that we all have a deep intelligence that comes out in our everyday communications, although many of us fail to notice it. The idea is that with the unconscious mind people observe events clearly and honestly, and since they have a need to tell the truth to achieve emotional wholeness, the mind finds ways to put the truth it knows out there. It just takes a skilled "reader" to decode what's being said.

When the Ramsey ransom note was published and thereby made publicly available, Hodges began to study it out of curiosity. From its clues, he developed a picture of what sort of person the murderer would be and finally a key clue provided the full picture: It was Patsy Ramsey. That revelation led Hodges to reveal her covert confession in A Mother Gone Bad.

"As an expert in reading between the lines," he says, "I am no different from a detective who enters a crime scene. His first function is to observe as much as humanly possible about the scene, gleaning every possible clue." Hodges looks at the handwriting, at the idiosyncrasies revealed in misspellings, spacing, and grammar, at efforts to correct, and at the overall context. "I look at each word for two messages, not one," he says. The second one is the subconsciously-encoded message.

According to a seventy-page analysis that he and two colleagues sent to the Boulder district attorney, killers cannot stop themselves from confessing in some manner and the confession that's hidden in the ransom note indicates:

  • the killer is a woman
  • the killer is a cancer victim
  • whever wrote the note participated in the murder
  • her husband participated in the murder and cover-up
  • she expects to be caught
  • her motive was anger and deep pain
  • she offers details about what precipitated the murder
  • she provides a way to catch them
  • the note itself was prompted by psychological motives
  • the ransom amount indicates that this was not really a kidnapping
  • the victim was dead before the note was written
  • the ransom note is a story told by a firsthand witness, and whoever finds it should "listen carefully" this is repeated four times

Furthermore, when Patsy Ramsey made public statements, such as in her hour-long CNN interview, she named other family murder cases those involving O. J. Simpson and Susan Smith (who drowned her two sons), both of whom attempted to cover up a brutal crime. According to Hodges, this is her unconscious way of saying that she is like them. These associations also point to a love triangle and a sense of loss, as well as to apparently upstanding citizens who would be above public suspicion but who nevertheless participated in heinous crimes. Both Simpson and Smith also tried to manipulate the media on their own behalf. Linking her case to theirs is a clear thoughtprint indicator that her subconscious wants others to see what she has done.

Then when John and Patsy published a book telling their own story in The Death of Innocence, they reconfirmed over and over in unconscious patterns how they did the deed and covered it up.

Following a consistent communication between the lines is called following a "red thread," because people generally make the case against themselves (self-accusation) and it's just a matter of observing how they did it.

Patsy's thoughtprints, Hodges points out, generally surround health concerns, failing beauty, fear of a rival, the awareness that two people colluded, and the need to keep winning. John's involve a need to confess, a hidden identity, loss of control, and the need to put this behind him.

An example of Hodge's method is his analysis of the signature line of the ransom note, in which the author left a significant space between the 'i' and 'c' of victory, leaving Vi ctory." Hodges takes this to be the subconscious communication that this is the story about a six-year-old. How does he come up with that? "ctory" is close to "story" and VI is the roman numeral for six. Since Roman numerals were significant for Patsy Ramsey after having been diagnosed with stage IV ovarian cancer in 1993, her unconscious mind absorbed that information and used it to communicate something more than she meant to do.

Another example is the fact that she misspelled business as "bussiness," which Hodges interprets as her attempt to communicate "buss/kiss/romance/sex." A "buss" is a kiss that implies romance and sex.

He also makes an issue of the many times things occur in patterns of three, and finds a way to connect this to the Ramseys as well.

Although he sent all of this to the prosecution team, he found that few people acknowledged its significance as definitive proof. Hodges believes that the authorities fail to take his reading seriously because 1) they don't want to deal with the darker issues of parents who kill their children, and 2) they don't wish to admit that the subconscious can so openly reveal their own secrets.

Hodges feels certain that his work will hold up in court as a confirmed scientific method, both under the Frye "general acceptance" and the broader Daubert rulings. He bases this on support from the dean of a law school, but that in no way means that a judge will agree, or that the method has been tested through a court procedure and can stand up to appeals. Certainly there are mental health experts who will point out its unsound properties. That would make a prosecutor hesitate and that means that using it to "prove" the murderer's identity may offer the court no more than a polygraph does. If its admission into court is scientifically controversial, then it's not going to be useful in the case except perhaps as a way to get the killer to confess.

Nevertheless, the psychoanalytic method has a long and respected history, so a forensic application of this method to written or verbal communications ought at least to be explored.

Beyond the content of a questioned document is the form, specifically the way a person's writing can be so expertly forged that it may fool the best examiners. Such was the case with the Hitler Diaries.

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