Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods


Causes or Excuses?

Dr. Jonathan Pincus, chief of neurology at the Veteran's Administration Hospital in Washington, DC, takes on the rather cumbersome issue of what makes people violent, and he comes up with variations on a triad: brain damage, abuse, and mental illnessnotably paranoid thoughts. In Base Instincts, he says, "The same complex of factors underlies the act of homicide." Having examined over 150 murderers from Ted Bundy to prostitute killer Joel Rifkin, Pincus believes that these factors are at work in most fatal violence.

The trial for "pizza killer" Thomas Koskovich appears to support at least two parts of this formula. A social worker provided testimony that Koskovich's family was plagued by domestic violence, substance abuse, and suicide attempts. She expressed the opinion that Koskovich had been raised in a home without structure and was subjected to emotional neglect when his parents left him to be raised by his grandparents. Another expert testified that Koskovich was mentally ill, had a tenuous grasp on reality, and was a developing paranoid schizophrenic. Whether he also had brain damage was never mentioned.

Pincus aligns with Dorothy Otnow Lewis, author of Guilty by Reason of Insanity: both believe that the role of brain damage and abuse are key factors. However, there are problems with the approach as Pincus describes it. He discusses the case of Louis Culpepper, in prison for sexual molestation of a six-year-old girl. When Pincus found evidence of brain damage from an accident and a history of being sexually abused by relatives that inspired developing sexual fantasies about children, he hypothesized that the brain damage had removed Culpepper's inhibitions and allowed him to behave in ways he would not otherwise have done.

Pincus then rethought other cases he'd examined and used his ideas to evaluate additional cases into which he was called. The problem with this approach, however, is that it relies on a logical fallacy called "begging the question." From a small sample (one), he formulates assumptions that structure an approach that guides him to see only the evidence he wants to see. In other words, he sets up the theory and looks for evidence to support it. What happens is that he can miss other significant factors as well as heighten the emphasis on factors that might actually be minor. In fact, his explanations seem relevant to impulsive offenders but not to the type of person who coldly plans and executes a murder or some other form of overt cruelty.

Andrea Pia Yates (CORBIS)
Arthur Shawcross

To see the problems in context, let's look at a case that Dorothy Lewis evaluated. She was the defense's expert witness in the case of serial killer Arthur Shawcross from Rochester, New York. In the late 1980s, he killed at least 11 women, most of them prostitutes, and had returned to some of the bodies to mutilate them. He eviscerated one down the front and removed the vagina of another.

Lewis examined him and concluded from hypnosis sessions and from Shawcross's recollections that he had been severely traumatized as a child and suffered from incomplete temporal lobe seizures that blocked his memory. (His sister denied many of the things he claimed were true.) Lewis was of the opinion that those seizures only occurred when he was alone with prostitutes at night (although she later changed this theory to call these episodes dissociative). Despite having fully confessed to each murder and providing details only the killer would know, including leading investigators to the bodies of two of his victims, Dr. Lewis said that his memory was impaired at the time of the crimes and he couldn't have known what he was doing. She also said that he'd cut out the vagina from one victim and eaten it, so that proved that he had a disordermostly based on what Shawcross had told her rather than on physical evidence or corroborating records. (And it must be remembered that Shawcross hoped to win an insanity ruling.)

However, at no time did Lewis seem to be aware of the possibility that a psychopath was exploiting her and play-acting a role. Most forensic psychologists know about malingering and the manipulative psychopath. While Lewis claimed that an MRI had shown a small, fluid-filled cyst at the base of his right temporal lobe, she was unable to prove that this had had any effect on his behavior. Indeed, he'd been paroled from prison after 15 years because he'd been completely nonviolent while incarcerated. Yet he was there for killing and mutilating two children. How can it be that a brain lesion and psychological disorder cause him to kill in a dissociated state only when he's with children or prostitutes?

Another problem with the approach that Pincus and Lewis adopt is that they are studying only incarcerated individuals. For example, they both write about a study they did on 14 death-row inmates who had committed murder before the age of 18. They found their complex of three factors in all of them. Yet it could be the case that violent people with this triad of factors in their background are more impulsive and thus more prone to being arrested. Since these psychologists have not studied unapprehended killers or calculating people like Leopold and Loeb (who were not abused, brain damaged or mentally ill), it's possible, even likely, that other factors are at play in violence, and that the factors they name are not always present.

They also appear to neglect the influence of sociological factors. For perspective, and keeping in mind that not all violence would necessarily be viewed as outright evil, let's review the types of theories about the causes of violence.

  1. Sociological
    Most theories that are considered sociological tend to fix the causes of crime on some social or cultural force or circumstance, which is independent of individuals but nevertheless affects them. The idea is that the individual is a member of group that is affected by the force or circumstance in such a way as to be more likely to commit a crime. For example, poverty, the lack of opportunity to enhance status, or the feeling of powerlessness due to membership in a stigmatized social class can contribute to a criminal act. So can media attention to certain crimes such as school shootings.
  2. Biological
    These theories stress some factor arising from the body as the cause of crime. Perhaps the person had a genetic predisposition to do this and happened to be living in circumstances that triggered it. Maybe certain crimes like rape are ancestrally based, more functional for primitive population expansion but now considered a violation. There are also theories that have cited chromosomal abnormalities, body type determinants, and biochemical factors. While it is true that if certain personality types, such as psychopathy, are hard-wired in the brain, and if psychopathy is highly correlated with crime and recidivism, then it may be the case that biology plays a part.
  3. Psychological
    These theories look at personality factors to try to determine if certain personality types or traits are more likely to be generative of crime. They include psychoanalytic, behavioral, and trait theories. Many psychologists have written books on the "criminal personality type." Once again, however, there is no evidence that certain traits actually cause someone to commit a crime.
  4. Social psychology
    These theories attempt to study individuals in an environment, for example, a young black male in a neighborhood that pressures people to join gangs. Criminality is said to be learned through social interactions and exposure to certain role models. Some people believe that human nature is inherently prone toward anarchy and has to be restrained by social institutions and socialization in families. Others believe that people learn to be violent because it appears to offer a short-term reward or to be the only way out of a situation.
  5. Mixed Theories
    Most mental health professionals accept that there may be a complex organization of factors that lead to crime. It's difficult to ignore the neurological studies, but it's also difficult not to notice how certain situations that simply provide opportunity seem to inspire violence. Additionally, there's no doubt that some people with character disorders such as psychopathy are more prone to acting out aggressively. Thus, a mixed theory, while not as tidy, may be more accurate.

There appear to be a multiplicity of potential factors involved in evil behavior, and no single factor is either necessary or sufficient in itself to cause it. To better understand the nature of evil, we'll look at a broader range of evil acts in Part II, specifically from the perspective of those who devised and committed them.