Worlds Most Notorious Serial Killer Criminology Essay

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In this paper, I will reflect on one of the most puzzling and tantalizing unsolved cases that resulted in the life imprisonment of either the worlds most notorious serial killer or the world's most notorious liar; Henry Lee Lucas. Lucas confessed to over 600 murders, was convicted of eleven, stood trial for four, and was only proven guilty of three. However, during this process, Lucas was not assessed for mental disorders, malingering, or adjudicative competency. The application of forensic psychology may have indefinitely reduced the amount of false confessions and changed the outcome of Lucas' case.

Lying, or the telling of lies or false statements; untruthfulness, was the biggest issue faced by the law enforcement involved in this case. But why would a man, who has been in and out of prison for the majority of his life, provide false voluntary confessions to over 600 murders? Reports show that frequent liars tend to be manipulative and cunning, not to mention overly concerned with the impression they make on others (Kornet, 1997). This is to say that Lucas may have been lying in order to prove something, or to gain fame. During his confessionals, Lucas began to realize that he was the center of attention and quickly became a commodity, a criminal celebrity, someone of importance (Bobit, 2001). It is also proven that most liars remain at least somewhat conflicted about their behavior (Kornet, 1997). As a result, this trend ceased when Lucas faced the death penalty which resulted in a multitude of recanted confessions to avoid this fate.

Case/Topic Description

The case of Henry Lee Lucas was one of manipulation, confusion, and some unsolved mysteries. Lucas was a drifter from Blacksburg, Virginia, who allegedly confessed to over 360 murders, after being in and out of jail his entire life. This confession came after a ten year string of serial murders committed by Lucas and sometimes along with a companion. On July 11th, 1983 Lucas was arrested for illegal possession of a firearm. The police were relieved to have him in custody even if it was for a minor infraction because he was also a suspect in two cases of missing women. "Lucas claimed that the police had treated him badly, stripping him, denying him cigarettes, holding him in a substandard cell, and prohibiting his contact with an attorney" (Ramsland).  After enduring this treatment, he confessed to a ten year killing spree, during a conversation with a jailer and ended his confession by stating no one would believe him (Ramsland). This confession was the genesis of a long and confusing case in regard to the accuracy of this confession and the others soon to come.

Lucas began his line of murders early, allegedly committing his first murder at the age of 14, claiming that he killed a teenage girl just to know what sex with a human was like. Lucas was in constant trouble with the law for burglary, kidnapping, escaping from prison by stealing a car, and ultimately for murder. The first confirmed murder occurred on January 11, 1960. The victim: Lucas' own mother. During a verbal altercation with his mother who was 74 at the time, Lucas grabbed a knife and stabbed his mother in the neck. He was sentenced to twenty years in a South Michigan prison, and attempted to commit suicide twice while incarcerated, which resulted in his transfer to a forensic psychiatric hospital. He served ten years out of that twenty year sentence.

Once he was released from prison, he traveled to Florida and met his companion Ottis Toole, and together they began their cross-country killing spree. During their travels, Lucas and Toole were accompanied by Toole's niece, Becky Powell. Although Powell was only 12, Lucas began a romantic relationship with her and eventually left Toole and traveled with her alone. On August 24, 1982, Powell began to grow tired of the living conditions as well as becoming extremely home sick. She argued with Lucas about going home; Lucas agreed but after another argument stabbed her in the chest with a meat-carving knife and killing her. Lucas was also a practiced necrophilia; having a sexual attraction for or sexual intercourse with a corpse. Thus, after he murdered Becky Powell, he raped her corpse, dismembered the body into nine pieces and then proceeded to scatter her parts in a field.

About three weeks later, Lucas went to the home of Kate Rich, whom he and Powell had previously lived with, and asked if she would like to help to look for Becky. During their search, Lucas killed Rich with a butcher knife, wounding her heart, killing her instantly. He then raped the corpse and then shoved the body in a drainage pipe near the road. He retreated to Needles, California after the murder, but returned to the site of the body after hearing that he was a suspect in her disappearance. He participated in a polygraph test. The polygraph also known as "the lie detector" is a scientific method to determine deception (Bartol & Bartol, 2012) Lucas passed the polygraph and was not arrested. He returned to the drainage pipe, collected Rich's remains and incinerated them in a stove at the House of Prayer, the home of Lucas. After his confession, Lucas showed officers where the remains of both Powell and Rich could be found.

Lucas had also confessed to killing a woman known only as "Orange Socks"; however, prosecutors noticed that during Lucas' confession "…Lucas sometimes contradicted himself and suffered from key lapses in memory. The sheriff even had to refresh his memory at times during the interview, which suggested that Lucas simply "read" the sheriff's desire for information and gave him what he wanted" (Ramsland).  Lucas also was proven to be nowhere near the crime scene, which took place in Williamson, Texas, when the Lucas Report was released stating that Lucas was working in Jacksonville, Florida on the day of this incident(Mattox, 1986). After this bizarre confession the defense stated that Lucas was insane, diagnosed with schizophrenia and had an IQ of only 84. The prosecution then stated that he indeed was not insane, and was recorded stating that he had committed 360 murders (Ramsland). Ultimately, Lucas was convicted and sentenced to death by the jury.

It seems that throughout Lucas' elaborate confessional, police were so dedicated to closing open cases that they would believe any potentially false confession that Lucas would provide. All of Lucas' confessions were voluntary; "a self-incriminating statement made without any external pressure from law enforcement…sometimes in an effort to receive recognition or fame" (Bartol & Bartol 2012). Lucas also confessed to crimes that had already been solved. For example, Lucas confessed to a murder in Little Rock, Arkansas that had already been solved, and in West Virginia, Lucas confessed to the killing of a police officer whose death was determined to have been a suicide (Ramsland). This suggests that he may have been confessing to gain attention.

After confessing to 360 murders, Lucas was ultimately convicted of only eleven murders; however, some criminologists believe he was responsible for 40 to 50 murders (Ramsland). Lucas remained on death row until a file was created to clear his name from the "Orange Socks" murder. Lucas stood trial in 1996 and while on the witness stand stated that he had given a false confession and was able to release relevant information because he read the case file (Ramsland). After all of this evidence came to light, the then-Governor of Texas George W. Bush, decided to change Lucas' death sentence to a life sentence. Due to the nature of Henry Lee Lucas' case, it may never be known exactly how many murders he and Ottis Toole committed. There may be evidence that he committed other murders but judges will not accept his confessions due to his inconsistency, leaving many cases unfinished and never reaching a trial. Lucas died in prison of natural causes in March 2001.

Forensic Psychology Focus

Forensic psychology is the term used to describe the union between the study of human behavior and the brain and its application to the law and justice systems. This union in turn helps make the law enforcement system more consistent and effective while providing information that may not be readily available to law enforcement officers alone. There are five subareas of forensic psychology that include: police psychology, legal psychology, psychology of crime and delinquency, victimology and victim services, and correctional psychology. For the purpose of this paper, I will focus on the areas that may have affected the outcome of Lucas' case.

Police psychology is made up of two components; police and investigative psychology. Overall, the focus of this subarea is not only to screen police officers for fitness-for-duty, but also to educate officers about how to deal with the general public and how to maintain an effective and positive relationship with them. Police psychologists work to ensure that excessive force, police corruption, and coerced confession incidents decrease, so that the people do not lose faith in their law enforcement team. Officers also need to be educated about how to detect a possible underlying mental illness, because about 10% of police interactions involve people who are mentally disordered (Bartol & Bartol, 2011). An important responsibility of police officers is also to conduct interrogations. They need to ensure that the confessions they receive are not false, and have not been coerced. "…research shows that among prisoners who were convicted and later proven innocent by DNA evidence, more than 20 percent had given false confessions to police" (Kassin, Fein & Markus, 2011). As stated above both current and potential officers are screened and undergo assessments to ensure that their mental state and working environment are stable and that the officers are able to maintain their position. Counseling services are provided to the officers and their families when they are faced with critical incidents, external stress and personal stressors.

On the investigative side of police psychology, investigators use their psychological knowledge to implicate their suspect, infer why the crime was committed and make interconnections between the crime and other integral information. These psychologists use tactics such as profiling, modus operandi (MO), crime scene concepts, and mapping to figure out as much information about a criminal as possible. Professional polygraphists are also included in this section of police psychology and use the polygraph or "lie detector" to try and detect deception. However, there are limitations to many of the tactics used within this subsection of police psychology. In regards to profiling and mapping, the two main flaws are that human behavior patterns are not always consistent in every situation; the other is that the style of the offense and the crime evidence are not always related to psychological characteristics (Bartol & Bartol, 2011). Also, the polygraph has been a questionable source of lie detection since its introduction in the 1920s. This is because a polygraph machine does not actually detect lies or deception but instead records the body's response to guilt, shame and anxiety (Bartol & Bartol, 2011).

Legal psychology is the relationship between psychology and the judicial process. Within this field, legal psychologists are also referred to as trial consultants. The judicial process consists of four stages, which are the pretrial, trial, disposition and appellate stages. During the pretrial stage, psychologists generally conduct assessments to test for competency to stand trial and other mental health screenings. After the arraignment, the process continues on to the trial stage. Psychologists assist in jury selection, in a process called voir dire, where they give suggestions about which potential jurors may best represent an accurate jury of peers. Legal consultants also participate in expert testimony, providing information to cases that may not be general knowledge. Expert testimony could have been provided in regards to schizophrenia, personality disorders, IQ levels and the psychology behind lying. The disposition stage includes the formal sentencing which determines the fate of the defendant. In this case, Lucas took advantage of the appellate stage, which involves the defendant attempting to challenge their sentence for a plethora of reasons.

The area of correctional psychology would have ensured that Lucas was not experiencing ill treatment while incarcerated and may have been able to determine a potential mental illness in Lucas' history. A correctional psychologist would have conducted assessments in order to find a potential problem and then a solution in order to potentially rehabilitate Lucas. Initially, Lucas was given capital punishment; therefore a correctional psychologist may have been assigned to assess Lucas for competency to be executed.

The Role of the Forensic Psychologist

In regard to the Lucas case, his confessions came at a coincidental and convenient time for law enforcement in his area. However, a variety of these confessions have been proven to be false. The application of police psychology in Lucas's case could have not only affected the outcome of his sentence, but also saved face for the law enforcement involved. Officers of the law can have an extensive impact on the confessions and incarceration of suspected persons. As a result, when candidates for the police force are being screened and assessed for fitness-of-duty, police psychologists are recruited to screen out those that may increase the rate of excessive force, coercion, and police corruption within the force.

Lucas claimed that while in jail he was allegedly mistreated by the police and that this mistreatment is what eventually led to his string of confessions. A psychological assessment and a fitness-for-duty evaluation, conducted by a police psychologist, may have flagged some of these officers as unfit to meet job expectations, especially if these officers displayed behaviors that generated serious questions about their ability to carry out public safety duties (Bartol & Bartol, 2011). Although all of Lucas' confessions were voluntary, the vast majority of them were still false. He claims that after he started confessing, the officers began to give him special treatment and he also received stays of execution after the Orange Socks death sentence (Bobit, 2001). An experienced interrogator should have spoken with Lucas as soon as he confessed to the first murder so that he or she would be able to ascertain the validity of these various confessions provided by Lucas. An experienced interrogator would have also been using skillful and legal methods and techniques instead of feeding Lucas the information that he needed to concoct these grizzly and detailed confessions. Lucas should have also been informed of his Miranda rights, essentially granting him the right to remain silent so as not to incriminate himself and the right to have an attorney present during these interrogations.

The principal issue in the case of Henry Lee Lucas was that the police were not sure if these confessions were truthful or just a hoax. A reporter named Hugh Aynesworth interviewed Lucas for an article and Lucas stated that he had only murdered three people; Becky Powell, Katherine Rich, and his mother, and that all other confessions were fake (Bobit, 2001). These falsified confessions were Lucas' revenge tactics for being treated so badly in jail (Bobit, 2001). If a police psychologist was effectively utilized from the beginning of this case, none of these false confessions would have been accepted without a thorough investigation. This is where the investigative side of police psychology could have been utilized. The officers in this case were able to establish a modus operandi (MO) for Lucas, which allegedly changed in regard to how he actually killed these people, but seemed to always end in practicing necrophilia. However, if these officers had utilized geographical mapping, which is mapping the geographical locations and movements of a single serial killer (Bartol & Bartol, 2011), they would have realized that there was no way that a single human being could have committed this many murders. This is simply because these murders were sometimes thousands of miles away from his location both before and after the crime took place. However, when the Lucas Report was released it included a detailed chronology of Lucas' whereabouts from August 22, 1975 to June 11, 1983, which served to clear up some of these confessions (Mattox, 1986).

Lucas went on trial for four murders; Becky Powell, Katherine Rich, his mother, and Orange Socks; however, had a legal psychologist been involved in the trials, the outcome may have been very different. In all four of these trials, there was no proof of any mental status or adjudicative competency assessments being completed for Lucas which would have made a huge difference in the outcomes of these cases. If these assessments had been conducted, they may have been able to determine if Lucas should have been diagnosed with schizophrenia, antisocial personality disorder, or psychopathy. Lucas' defense did state that he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, which is characterized by two or more of the following: delusions, hallucinations, disorganized speech, grossly disorganized or catatonic behavior, or negative symptoms (Butcher, Mineka & Hooley, 2011). Even though the opposing defense stated that this was not true, some of Lucas' behaviors seemed representative of these symptoms. For example, a religious delusion that he held was that he claimed to believe in Satan and was involved with a satanic cult called the Hands of Death, which practiced human sacrifice by the word of Satan, which seemed to justify his large list of murders (Ramsland).

A legal psychologist could have also provided expert testimony after the mental status assessments were completed. Lucas may have been diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder, which is characterized by various behaviors such as: repeated law-breaking, deceitfulness, impulsivity, and lack of remorse (Butcher, et al., 2011). When Lucas stood trial for the murder of his mother in March 1960, he was said to have lacked remorse or emotion (Bobit, 2001). If this was the case, then a legal psychologist could have provided expert knowledge about this disorder which may not have been accessible to the parties involved. More importantly in this case, a legal psychologist could also assess for malingering, which is when an individual fakes symptoms of a mental disorder in order to postpone a trial or to receive a lighter sentence (Bartol & Bartol, 2011). Using the Constructed Interview of Reported Symptoms, the legal psychologist may have been able to determine whether Lucas had a mental disorder, if he was faking, or if he was being deceitful for other purposes. For example, Lucas stated that he kept confessing to avoid death row because he understood that once the confessions stopped he would immediately be sent to death row (Bobit, 2001).

During the arraignment of four of his trials, Lucas entered a plea of guilty, with the exception of the Orange Socks murder. He faced the death penalty for this murder, and therefore recanted his confession about the murder. The legal psychologist could have worked with Lucas' defense team to provide death penalty mitigation so that Lucas could avoid capital punishment. The psychologist could also have collaborated with the opposing team to identify aggravating factors to heighten the seriousness of his crimes and help aid in the death penalty decision (Bartol & Bartol, 2011). However, on June 26th, 1998 with the facts reported in the Lucas Report considered, and a lack of evidence linking Lucas to the murder of Orange Socks, then-Texas Governor George W. Bush altered Lucas' sentence from death to life in prison (Bobit, 2001).


Forensic psychology is essential to the productivity of the legal system and helps to remove the dichotomous nature associated with legal proceedings. All of the sections of forensic psychology are interconnected in that if our police are properly trained and screened, the incidents of corruption or mistreatment will decrease which may have a positive correlation with the frequency of false confessions, and wrongful incarceration decreasing, as well. The involvement of forensic psychologists in the court room provides an area of expertise that may prove beneficial to any court proceeding, especially criminal cases involving violence and murder. It is still unknown exactly how many people Henry Lee Lucas murdered. However, if forensic psychology had been applied from the beginning when he was jailed for his minor infraction, these bizarre confessions may have never been uttered and he would have only stood trial for the three murders that he was proven to commit and served the appropriate sentences.