Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Bad to the Bone: All About Criminal Motivation

Bad Girls

"All of them!" Andrea Yates on June 20, 2001 when her husband, Russell, asked her which of their five children did she kill.

Ever since 12 year-old Hannah Occuish was hanged in New London, Connecticut, in 1787 for the murder of a 6-year-old girl in a dispute over strawberries, female criminality has spawned its own brand of crime theories (Occuish may be the youngest person legally executed in American history). Of course, most of these theories are unique to women and cannot be shared by the male population. Pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS) and post-partum depression syndrome (PPDS) have been used in several murder cases during the 1990s which generated a great deal of publicity. Although the perception may be different, PMS as a causal factor in female crime is not new.

In the late 19th century, Lombroso began with the basic misconception that female criminality correlates to hormonal factors and chemical imbalances that originate with the menstrual cycle. It was thought that menstruation could cause a variety of conditions like migraine, epilepsy, kleptomania, pyromania, suicide and even homicide. This line of thinking continued throughout the century. In 1945, a study found that "84 percent of women's crimes of violence are committed during the premenstrual and the early menstrual periods" (Vito and Holmes). A later study seemed to confirm that finding when it was discovered that 80 percent of violent acts committed by women convicts in New York were committed during their menstrual period (Vito and Holmes). Despite these examples, however, current research does not support a direct relationship between a woman's menstrual period and female criminality. It is just as likely that the psychological stress of hostility and violence brings on the menstrual cycle. The conclusions drawn during many of the earlier studies were based on stereotypical attitudes and sweeping assumptions of the female sex. Post-partum depression is also coming under much more scrutiny ever since a tragic murder case in Texas in 2001.

Andrea Yates, convicted of the murder of her five children (AP)
Andrea Yates, convic-
ted of the murder of her
five children (AP)

Andrea Yates, 36, who drowned her five children in Houston, Texas, on June 20, 2001, was said to be suffering from a severe case of PPDS when she committed the murders. At the Yates trial, her attorney, George McCall Secrest told CNN, "The jury is going to have to focus not only on the facts of the actual offense on trial but they're going to have to understand the mental state of mind of the accused." Secrest knew what he was talking about. In 1997, he defended a Texas woman who killed her 4-month-old baby because she thought the child was possessed by demons. The woman was found not guilty by reason of insanity. Andrea Yates was not that lucky. In March 2002, a jury deliberated less than four hours and found her guilty of the five murders. She was later sentenced to life in prison.

Another example of a post-partum depression homicide occurred in New York in 2001 when 38-year-old Susan Mooney murdered her 7-month-old son by placing her hand over his mouth. At her murder trial, a doctor testified that Mooney "was confused, and being driven by internal stimuli that were not part of reality." Like many other homicides committed by mothers who recently gave birth, the post-partum explanation was offered as a defense. As in most other cases of this type, that explanation will probably be rejected. Juries are historically reluctant to excuse a mother for the murder of her children for almost any reason.

Although women compromise approximately 51% of the population, they make up less than 10% of serial killers. The differences between male and female murderers are many. A recent study revealed that female serial killers were older than their male counterparts and were more likely to be drug abusers and alcoholics. Women were found to be suffering from a litany of psychological disorders while males were most often sociopaths. Female serial killers usually poisoned or smothered their victims who were previously known to them. Men usually stalked their prey while women, like Aileen Wournos and Louise Peete, who may have killed six men, most often lured victims to their deaths. In another study of 14 female killers, all were found to have suffered from abusive relationships in dysfunctional families, almost a trademark of all female killers.

Louise Preslar Peete, sometimes called a "Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde," was raised in an aristocratic Louisiana family. She was the typical Southern belle: educated, refined and attractive. Unfortunately, Louise was also unprincipled and cunning. She shot and killed her boyfriend when she was just 21 years old in 1903. When she later appeared before a grand jury, she convinced the panel she was defending herself against a sexual assault. Sentenced to life in 1923 for the murder of her husband, she managed to obtain a parole in 1942. Upon her release, Louise then murdered an elderly widow to get control of her estate. Peete went to the San Quentin gas chamber on April 11, 1947. She maintained her composure to the end, always mindful of her cultured upbringing. Her last words to the executioner were: "Thank you for all your many kindnesses!"

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