Serial Murder in America: Case Studies of Seven Offenders

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Behavioral Sciences and the Law Behav. Sci. Law 22: 395–414 (2004) Published online in Wiley InterScience ( DOI: 10.1002/bsl.595

Serial Murder in America: Case Studies of Seven Offenders
James O. Beasley II, B.S., M.P.A.*
This article summarizes and compares information on seven interviewed serial killers in an ongoing project designed to study similarities and differences among these individuals. The aim of this article is to increase our collective knowledge of the dynamics of serial murder by examining the perpetrators’ backgrounds, as well as the unique ways in which they view themselves and the world around them. Although qualitative interview research alone is not sufficient to fully understand such behavior, it is useful in many ways. Some of the information discussed based on the seven offenders interviewed is compared with broader epidemiological studies, and the strengths and limitations of each type of research are discussed. Published in 2004 by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

The initial FBI study on sexual homicide and crime scene analysis, which included interviews with 25 serial murderers by the Behavioral Science Unit (BSU) at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, was published nearly 20 years ago (The Men Who Murdered, 1985). Since then, the phenomenon of serial murder has been mythologized in popular culture, sensationalized by the media, and increasingly scrutinized by academia. The results have been confounding, with fiction blurring with fact, and assumptions and guesses often treated as certainty. Many of these misperceptions are associated with the technique of profiling, which involves assessment of crime scenes to construct a set of behavioral traits likely to be found in a particular offender. Even today there is a common belief that profiling is an almost mystical experience, and that it is always accurate and clear cut. However, violent criminal behavior is extremely variable, making precise predictions problematic. Some researchers have addressed the issue of predictability, among them Farrington (1982); Goldberg (2000); Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990); and Malmquist (1996). Notwithstanding some acceptance of the notion of past violent behaviors being predictive of future such behaviors (Samenow, 1998; Widom & Toch, 2000), there exists an abundance of psychological theories about criminal behavior that are varied and sometimes conflicting (Hall, 1999; Widom & Toch, 2000). As Fox and Levin (2001) have warned, ‘‘correlation does not imply causation,’’ and

*Correspondence to: James O. Beasley II, B.S., M.P.A., Supervisory Special Agent, National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, FBI Academy, Quantico, VA 22135, U.S.A. E-mail:

This article is a U.S. Government work and is in the public domain in the U.S.A.


J. O. Beasley

‘‘correlation also does not guarantee predictability’’ (pp. 26–28). Based partly on these predictability issues, some academics have raised concerns over the validity of profiling, and have called for more empirical research (Homant & Kennedy, 1998; Kocsis, Hayes, & Irwin, 2002). Some have gone further, criticizing perceived shortcomings of early profiling research findings and resulting procedures (Egger, 1998), including some done by the FBI (Godwin, 2000). Others (Holmes & Holmes, 2002) have noted the failure of FBI researchers to disclose their methodology regarding interviews of some of the prominent killers in their studies. That serial murder and profiling have become so fixed within our national psyche suggests that these subjects serve, even when true, as more than unique criminal behaviors and an associated investigative tool; they have entered the realm of entertainment (Tithecott, 1997). Narratives and descriptions of these crimes and those who commit them seem to horrify, to challenge, and to satisfy our morbid curiosity. Commentary about these individuals often includes large doses of melodrama....
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