Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Bad to the Bone: All About Criminal Motivation

It Went to My Head!

"I'm no ordinary killer!" accused murderer Raymond Fernandez told Michigan cops in 1950 when he was arrested for one of 17 suspected murders.

Charles Whitman, the rooftop sniper, who shot 48 people on August 1, 1966 (AP)
Charles Whitman, the
rooftop sniper, who
shot 48 people on
August 1, 1966 (AP)

Brain irregularities or physical trauma, such as head injury, may also play a role in criminality. Although research indicates brain damage can cause a sudden personality change, it is not true in each and every case. On August 1, 1966, a distraught Charles Whitman, 24, climbed to the top of a 307-foot observation tower at the University of Texas in Austin. A few hours before, he had stabbed his mother to death and shot her in the back of the head. An ex-Marine who had a fascination about guns, Whitman brought a formidable arsenal with him. For nearly two hours, using a high-powered rifle, he randomly shot 48 people, killing 18. The day before, he left a note that read: "After my death, I wish an autopsy on me to be performed to see if there is any mental disorder." During the postmortem exam, doctors discovered that Whitman had a severe brain tumor. But whether it had been the cause of Whitman's murderous rampage was never proven.

One of the most famous brain injuries on record is the fascinating case of the "crowbar incident," which occurred in Virginia on September 13, 1848. A 24-year-old railroad worker, Phineas P. Gage, was caught in a powerful explosion during a construction accident. A steel rod, 3.5 foot in length, known as a tamping iron, became airborne and pierced the skull of Phineas Gage. The iron entered the top of his head, passed through the brain and exited through the lower portion of the left cheek, leaving a gaping hole. Gage never lost consciousness and spoke with his co-workers several minutes after the event. He was taken to a hotel where he walked unassisted up stairs. "He bore his sufferings with firmness," Dr. J. M. Harlow, the treating physician, later wrote, "and directed my attention to the hole in his cheek, saying, 'the iron entered there and passed through my head!"

The iron bar that pierced the skull of Phineas P. Gage on September 13, 1848, now on display at Harvard University.
The iron bar that pierced the skull of
Phineas P. Gage on September 13, 1848,
now on display at Harvard University.

Gage survived. But his personality had undergone a dramatic change. Whereas before he was the capable and efficient foreman on the job, Phineas Gage became sloppy, careless and argumentative. "The equilibrium or balance between his intellectual faculties and his animal propensities seemed to have been destroyed," said the doctor. Gage was later dismissed from his job and became somewhat of a reclusive figure. "His mind is radically changed," wrote Dr. Harlow, "so decidedly that his friends said he was no longer Gage!" But because of his fantastic injury, Gage became famous. He even appeared in P.T. Barnum's American Museum in New York City. His skull and the iron bar that pierced it are on display at Harvard University.

Raymond Fernandez, serial killer, executed at Sing Sing 1951
Raymond Fernandez, serial killer, executed
at Sing Sing 1951

In a similar case many years later, a head injury may have transformed a man into a serial killer. During an ocean voyage to America in 1945, Raymond Fernandez, 30, experienced a life-changing event. As the young man climbed a flight of steps to the ship's main deck, a hatch cover slammed onto the top of his head. Fernandez suffered a serious concussion and remained in a coma for a week. When he awoke, it was clear that he had undergone a personality transformation. Whereas before he was courteous, well mannered and displayed an even disposition, he soon became argumentative, quick to anger and difficult to control. Over the next few years, Fernandez may have murdered 17 women with the help of his girlfriend, Martha Beck. They were eventually executed at Sing Sing prison in 1951.

Another murder case, which sparked a great deal of controversy and increased racial tensions as well, was the story of NYPD Officer Robert Torsney. On Thanksgiving Day in 1976, Torsney, who was white, shot and killed a 15-year-old black youth on a Brooklyn street for no apparent reason. Torsney was later indicted and charged with murder. At his trial in November of 1977, Torsney's attorney said that his client was suffering a rare form of "psychomotor seizure" which caused him to black out for a few seconds resulting in a total memory loss. This condition, which a psychiatrist called "Automatism of Penfield", apparently was so rare, no one had ever heard of it until the trial. The jury seemed to agree because Torsney was found not guilty by reason of insanity. He later spent less than two years confined to a mental institution where he was allowed to go home on most weekends.

However, cases such as Torsney's are exceptional. In most situations where a defendant suffers a head injury or sustains brain damage through a disease, courts usually will not accept that as an excuse for murder. Most head trauma victims do not immediately go out and commit crimes. But mental instability, in all its forms, has been used in courts for nearly two centuries to explain why people commit crimes.

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