Multiple homicide and serial murder is undoubtedly one of the most terrifying and fascinating phenomenas of modern-day crime. Over the past decade, the topic of multiple homicide has attracted increased attention in the field of criminology (Fox & Levin 1998). Specifically, serial murder involves a string of four or more homicides committed by one or a few perpetrators that spans a period of days, weeks, months, or even years (Fox & Levin 1998). According to Zeigler (2009), serial murderers include "any offenders, male or female, who kill over time," (pg. 1). Furthermore, serial killers are often single white males and despite their intellectual abilities and intelligence, they are unable to hold onto a job for extended periods of time (Bartels 1998). Serial killers often come from unstable families that have a history of criminality, psychological disturbances, and/or alcoholism (Hickey 2010). Serial murderers, like all human beings, are the product of their heredity, their upbringing, and the choices they make throughout development.
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When analyzing the phenomena of serial homicide, it is important to understand the connection between causality and the serial murderer. 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 (Fox & Levin 1998). 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 (Fox & Levin 1998). 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 (Fox & Levin 1998). In some individuals the failure to develop adequate coping mechanisms often results in violent behavior. Neglect and abuse during the childhood of development have been shown to contribute to an increased risk of future violence. Substance abuse can and does lead to increased aggression and violence as well (Fox & Levin 1998).
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 (Fox & Levin 1998). The development of a serial killer involves a combination of these factors, which exist together in a rare coming together 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 (Fox & Levin 1998). 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 (Fox & Levin 1998). For them, violence and sexual gratification are inexplicably intertwined in their psyche (Fox & Levin 1998).
Serial killers differ in many ways, including their motivations for killing and their behavior at the crime scene. However, there are certain traits common to some serial murderers, including sensation seeking, a lack of remorse or guilt, impulsivity, the need for control, and predatory behavior (Fox & Levin 1998). These traits and behaviors are consistent with the psychopathic personality disorder. 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 (Fox & Levin 1998). Through a clinical assessment, one can measure the degree of psychopathy an individual possesses (Fox & Levin 1998). 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 (Fox & Levin 1998). The interpersonal traits include persuasiveness, superficial charm, a pretentious sense of self-worth, pathological lying, and the manipulation of others (Fox & Levin 1998). The affective traits include a lack of remorse and/or guilt, shallow affect, a lack of empathy, and failure to accept responsibility (Fox & Levin 1998). The lifestyle behaviors include stimulation-seeking behavior, impulsivity, irresponsibility, parasitic orientation, and a lack of realistic life goals (Fox & Levin 1998). The anti-social behaviors include poor behavioral controls, early childhood behavior problems, juvenile delinquency, revocation of conditional release, and criminal versatility (Fox & Levin 1998). 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 (Fox & Levin 1998).
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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 (Bartels 1998). Psychopaths who commit serial murder do not value human life and are extremely insensitive in their interactions with their victims (Bartels 1998). This is particularly evident in sexually motivated serial killers who repeatedly target, stalk, assault, and kill without a sense of remorse. With that in mind, psychopathy alone does not explain the motivations of a serial killer. However, understanding psychopathy becomes particularly important to law enforcement during a serial murder investigation and upon the arrest of a psychopathic serial killer (Bartels 1998). 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 to one another (Bartels 1998).
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 (Hickey 2010). These range from simple, definitive models to complex, multiple-category typologies that are loaded with additional requirements (Hickey 2010). Identifying motivations in the investigation of a crime is a standard procedure for law enforcement. Typically, motivation provides police with the means to narrow the potential suspect pool (Hickey 2010). For the most part, serial murder involves strangers with no visible relationship between the offender and the victim. This distinguishes a serial murder investigation as a more imprecise undertaking than that of other crimes (Hickey 2010). Since the investigations generally lack an obvious connection between the offender and the victim, investigators instead attempt to differentiate the motivations behind the murders, as a way to narrow their investigative focus (Hickey 2010). Serial murder crime scenes can have bizarre features that may cloud the identification of a motive. The behavior of a serial murderer at crime scenes may evolve throughout the series of crimes and manifest different interactions between an offender and a victim (Hickey 2010). It is also extremely difficult to identify a single motivation when there is more than one offender involved in the series (Hickey 2010).
A serial murderer may have multiple motives for committing their crimes and these motives may be difficult to determine in a serial murder investigation. Serial murderers motives may evolve both within a single murder as well throughout the murder series. Regardless of the motive, serial murderers commit their crimes because they want to. Crime scene investigators use a set of non-inclusive categories of motivations as guidelines for their investigation (Hickey 2010). The following categories represent general categories and are not intended to be a complete measure of serial offenders or their motivation: anger, criminal enterprise, financial gain, ideology, power/thrill, psychosis, and sexually-based (Hickey 2010). Anger is a motivation in which an offender displays rage or hostility towards a certain subgroup of the population or with society as a whole (Hickey 2010). Criminal Enterprise is a motivation in which the offender benefits in status or monetary compensation by committing murder that is drug, gang, or organized crime related (Hickey 2010). Financial gain is a motivation in which the offender benefits monetarily from killing. Examples of these types of crimes are "black widow" killings, robbery homicides, or multiple killings involving insurance or welfare fraud (Hickey 2010). Ideology is a motivation to commit murders in order to further the goals and ideas of a specific individual or group. Examples of these include terrorist groups or an individual(s) who attacks a specific racial, gender, or ethnic group (Hickey 2010). Power/thrill is a motivation in which the offender feels empowered and/or excited when he/she kills their victims (Hickey 2010). Psychosis is a situation in which the offender is suffering from a severe mental illness and is killing because of that illness. This may include auditory and/or visual hallucinations and paranoid, grandiose, or bizarre delusions. Sexually-based is a motivation driven by the sexual needs and desires of the offender (Hickey 2010).
Following a detailed analysis of the motivations that are involved in serial murder, it is important to consider the sociological theories that can be connected to serial killers, in order to understand the idea of serial murder as a whole. The sociological theories that were chosen include: Self-Control Theory, Social Structural Theory, and Labeling Theory.
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The Self-Control Theory suggests that crimes are committed due to a lack of self-control, which is a result of poor parenting during childhood. Those who develop poor self-control will fail throughout life in adapting to social norms. Individuals with low self-control are impulsive, insensitive, risk-taking, non-verbal, and short-sighted. According to Zeigler (2009), "The serial killer's childhood is marked by a lack of nurturing and love. He usually grows up in a neglectful, abusive, and even violent atmosphere, where important needs are not met," (pg. 4) As a result, many kids who grow up in this type of environment have trouble controlling their emotions and establishing meaningful relationships as they grow older. The relationship with one's parents, the first connection a human builds in his or her life, provides structure and lessons, teaching one how to interact with others (Zeigler 2009). One major issue not directly explained of serial murders in Self-Control Theory is why some children who are raised improperly become criminals and others do not. Furthermore, an individual's degree of criminality becomes important here because it is yet another variable in the equation of self-control (Zeigler 2009). While Gottfredson and Hirschi do not address this problem directly, their theory does provide an answer as to why this behavior may occur in some individuals and not in others who have similar backgrounds. People with low self-control are impulsive. The major aspect that separates killers from non-killers, both of whom have deprived childhoods, is intense frustration (Zeigler 2009). People with low self-control are insensitive and risk-taking. Most killers are insensitive to the pain they cause and quite obviously take the risk of being put to death for their crimes. Self-Control Theory and the crime of serial homicide are very compatible. Serial killers do appear to have low self-control, and much of their lack of ability to establish meaningful relationships, stems from deprivation during the childhood years (Zeigler 2009). Also, many of the characteristics of individuals with low self-control can serve as possible explanations as to why serial murderers kill. Thus, the Self-Control Theory does prove very compatible with serial murder.
Social Structural theories focus on an individuals' socioeconomic standing, suggesting that poor people commit more crimes because they are stifled in their quest for financial or social success (Hickey 2010). Specifically, offenders, as a result of their racial, ethnic, or sub-cultural standing, are blocked in various ways from achieving the "American Dream" through legitimate means. Consequently, they seek success through deviant methods. Structural theories offer rational explanations for many types of crimes except for serial murder. Generally, serial killers do not belong to a racial or ethnic minority and do not appear to be particularly motivated, although there are a few exceptions, by social or financial gain (Hickey 2010). Serial offenders exist who rob their victims, but even then, the financial reward is secondary to the attraction of killing another human being. The few exceptions to this often are found among female serial killers, who constitute a small portion of the total number of serial murderers (Hickey 2010).
The Labeling theory views abnormal behavior as a process by which a person graduates from primary deviance to secondary deviance. According to labeling theorists the original deviant act, of which the origins vary significantly, is called primary deviance. By being labeled a deviant, the offender is carried along in a societal process of negative social sanctions that inevitably engender hostility and resentment in the offender (Hickey 2010). The offender reacts negatively to the label by acting against society and so concludes the process by affirming the negative label or deviant status.
Following the analysis of the sociological theories, it is important to consider and understand how the phenomenon of serial murder is socially constructed within the societal realm. The literature on serial murder is largely the product of broad-based descriptive study of large numbers of cases of serial killers or the result of individual case studies (Hickey 2010). In order to understand serial murder, it is essential to go beyond mere description of the offenders, their crimes, and their victims. It is important to observe the parameters of serial murder: who the perpetrators are (e.g., by gender, race, age, social class) as well as how and who they kill (Hickey 2010). Knowledge of these variables helps to define the phenomenon. These observations do not in themselves, however, translate to an understanding of serial murder. In fact, in terms of some critical aspects of the phenomenon, they may be misleading. The manner in which the problem of serial murder is viewed, will determine what is found (Hickey 2010). The conscience of humanity demands that the taking of one human life by another be explained. Human beings are distinguished from other life forms in terms of their ability to develop culture (Hickey 2010). Human beings have the capacity to behave in pro-social and antisocial ways; two dimensions that are not mutually exclusive (Hickey 2010). It may be the result of protective or compassionate motives that prompt one individual to kill another. The act of taking another's life may thus be understandable and acceptable, in terms of its apparent value (Hickey 2010). The ideas of transformation and progression require that the interaction of the individual be examined, while considering the specific elements of his or her external world (Hickey 2010). According to Hickey (2010), "As a matter of ontological development, we are required to become patient observers, remaining vigilant and open to incorporating all manner of personal variables into the serial murderer equation," (pg. 42).
In order to prevent or reduce cases of serial homicide, it is important to understand the successful investigative practices that are utilized to solve serial murder cases. These practices include but are not limited to: identification, task force organization, and communication (Fox & Levin 1998). Identifying a homicide series is easier in rapidly-developing, high profile cases involving low risk victims. These cases are reported to law enforcement upon discovery of the crimes and draw immediate media attention. In contrast, identifying a series involving high risk victims in multiple jurisdictions is much more difficult (Fox & Levin 1998). This is primarily due to the high risk lifestyle and transitory nature of the victims. Additionally, the lack of communication between law enforcement agencies and differing records management systems impede the connection of cases to a common offender (Fox & Levin 1998).
Once a serial murder series has been identified, it is important for the involved law enforcement agencies to work together. There are a number of operational and investigative issues critical to the successful establishment of an investigative task force (Fox & Levin 1998). Initially, a lead agency for the task force should be designated and will assume the primary investigative role (Fox & Levin 1998). The choice of a lead agency is based upon a number of factors including the number and viability of the cases, available resources, and investigative experience. Once established, all law enforcement agencies involved in the investigation should have representation in the task force (Fox & Levin 1998). Any outlying agencies should also be included, even if they do not have an identified case in the investigation. An effective and reliable investigative model identifies a lead investigator and co-investigator, who, regardless of rank, are given complete control of the investigation. These investigators review all incoming information, collate the information, and assign leads (Fox & Levin 1998).
Communication on the operational level is extremely important, especially in task force investigations and when serial murder cases involve multiple states (Fox & Levin 1998). As all information must be shared seamlessly, teleconferences may not sufficiently allow for the flow of information. Face-to-face case briefings are suggested as well as daily briefings which are essential for investigators, especially when there are different work shifts (Fox & Levin 1998). Periodic summary briefings are also necessary for managers and patrol officers (Fox & Levin 1998). These can be accomplished via e-mails or at roll call and should be conducted by investigative personnel (Fox & Levin 1998). Submitting investigative reports on solved and unsolved murders, attempted murders, and sexual assaults into the investigative database is strongly recommended and may facilitate the linkage of unknown related cases for law enforcement agencies (Fox & Levin 1998).
In conclusion, serial murder is a relatively rare event, estimated to comprise less than one percent of all murders committed in any given year (Hickey 2010). However, there is a chilling interest in the topic that far exceeds its scope and has generated countless articles, books, and movies. The topic of serial murder occupies a unique position within the criminal justice community as well. In addition to the significant investigative challenges they bring to law enforcement agencies, serial murder cases attract an over-abundance of attention from the media, health experts, academia, and the general public. While there has been significant, independent work conducted by a variety of experts to identify and analyze the many issues related to serial murder, there have been few efforts to reach a consensus between law enforcement agencies and officials and other experts, regarding these important matters (Bartels 1998).