53 Fed. Probation 41 (1989)
Serial Murderers: Four Case Histories

handle is hein.journals/fedpro53 and id is 327 raw text is: Serial Murderers: Four Case Histories

THE INCREASE in homicide in the
United States, particularly in terms of
serial murders, has raised many ques-
tions concerning the socioeconomic factors sur-
rounding such crimes. Both society and those in
the criminal justice system have begun to feel the
need to answer long-held questions concerning
serial murder. This is particularly true in light of
the publicity given the family histories of perpe-
trators of homicide. This article will explore the
psychological profiles of a selected group of serial
murderers in order to determine the common emo-
tional and environmental backgrounds of these
individuals. Through analysis of these findings
and further studies, it may be possible to develop
criteria for early identification of persons with
such tendencies and to develop early treatment
programs for such individuals.
In order to view serial murder in perspective,
one must first understand the underlying cause of
murder generally, excluding felony murders and
hired assassins. Additionally, one must consider
the application of factors involved in homicides as
a whole. Studies in the area of homicide seem to
indicate that there are three primary psychologi-
cal elements contributing to motivation for murder
(Abrahamsen, 1973; Holmes, 1988): frustration,
fear, and depression. It is frequently the intensity
of these feelings, combined with the murderer's
interactions with his environment, that bring
about the desire-and oftentimes the compul-
sion-to murder. In brief, homicides occur as a
result of an intense conflict emanating from a
struggle between an internal need for self-preser-
vation and the stresses pressuring the murderer
from the external environment. The roots of this
inner conflict are often found in the early child-
hood of those committing homicide. Studies sup-
port the findings that children as early as 1 or 2
years of age may be hurt by the rejection or
criticism of others (Langwin, 1983). It is also clear
that resentment brought about as a result of such
rejection is frequently repressed by those who later
commit murder. Repression often becomes a pat-
tern of behavior leaving little need for release of
anger. Upon reaching adulthood, the individual
*Ms. Leibman is a forensic psychologist with the
Atlantic County Jail, as well as a professor, Department
of Criminal Justice, Temple University. She wishes to
thank her friend andmentor, Donald Fiscor, for his help
and support.

who thus far has adequately repressed rage since
childhood may find himself in situations where he
is unable to suppress hostile feelings. In these
circumstances, the ego-protective mechanisms,
previously used successfully, fail, and the indi-
vidual then acts out in a violent manner. This is
particularly true when the person feels threatened
or frustrated. Complicating this problem may be
situations or people that predispose the murderer
to frustrated or angry reactions.
The literature described three distinct types of
murderers: ego disharmonious (or ego-dystonic),
psychotic murderers, and ego-harmonious (ego-
syntonic) (Abrahamsen; 1973, Holmes, 1988). Ego
disharmonious murderers are those who experi-
ence a conflict between their ego and their super-
ego or their conscience. This conflict leads to an
altered state of consciousness or a dissociative
reaction. The individual is then unable to control
his aggressive behavior or feelings of hostility and
comes to react violently or explosively.
The psychotic murderer is an individual who
suffers from a mental illness such that he has had
a complete break with reality.
The ego harmonious type of killing is carried
out with little, if any, disruption of the functioning
of the ego. The murder that takes place is rational
and acceptable to the perpetrator on a conscious
In general, the primary characteristics of a
murderer are as follows: Helplessness, impo-
tence, a nagging feeling of revenge (all carried over
from childhood), an irrational hatred of others,
suspiciousness, hypersensitivity to injustices or
rejection, self-centeredness, an inability to with-
stand frustration, an overpowering feeling of fre-
quent uncontrollable emotional outbursts, a need
to retaliate, destroy or tear down by killing
(Abrahamsen, 1973).
Serial murder is best characterized as an ego-
dystonic act, since the murderer frequently has, at
least on a conscious level, disassociated himself
from the killings. In fact, when confronted with
evidence of their crimes, many serial murderers
have difficulty believing that they are capable of
such acts. A serial murder, unlike a mass murder,
involves the killing of several people (usually)
within the same area, during a fairly short period
of time, at the hands of a single assailant. This
type of murder is distinguished from a mass
murder wherein a number of victims are killed at

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