Profiles of serial killers have limitations

October 27, 2006

(SACRAMENTO, Calif.) - Dennis Rader, the notorious BTK murderer who eluded capture for more than 30 years until his arrest in 2005, did not fit precisely into the FBI's method for profiling serial killers on the basis of crime scenes.

And Aileen Wuornos, the Florida prostitute executed in 2002 for slaying seven men over a two-year period in the early 1990s, didn't fit at all because the database of convicted serial killers used by the FBI in developing their profiling method did not include women.

The cases of Rader and Wuornos are among the topics to be explored during a panel discussion led by Dr. Charles L. Scott, a forensic psychiatrist at UC Davis Health System, at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law Friday at the Marriott Hotel in downtown Chicago. Scott will examine the way the bureau develops the personality profiles used by investigators in serial murder cases. He also will look at alternative profiling methods, such as one developed by a crime writer that uses motive to sketch a female offender's likely character traits.

"The FBI profiling method has many positive attributes. But it also has some inherent limitations," Scott said. Scott, associate professor of clinical psychiatry with the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science, will be one of four panelists in the talk, dubbed "Serial Killers: From Cradle to Grave." It is one of many events slated at the meeting, which began Thursday and runs through Sunday. The annual conference seeks to cover the major issues facing forensic psychiatrists.

Scott has extensive experience in legal psychiatric issues. He directs the psychiatry department's forensic case seminar, which trains psychiatrists in criminal and civil psychiatric evaluations, including assessments on insanity, competency to stand trial, personal injury evaluations, medical malpractice and danger assessments. He also serves as psychiatric consultant to the Sacramento County Jail and directs his department's forensic psychiatry residency program, overseeing training and education in landmark mental health law cases.

The purpose of Friday's panel discussion is not to critique the FBI, Scott said. Instead, it is to acquaint forensic psychiatrists with how the bureau profiles serial killers, defined as someone who has killed at least three times.

"Often, forensic psychiatrists are not trained in how the FBI does its analysis," Scott said.

Such training is important, Scott said, because forensic psychiatrists can play "an important collaborative role" with law enforcement when it comes to profiling. To support his view, Scott will cite a study that found psychiatrists were more accurate than police in profiling murder suspects. To an FBI agent, the crime scene is the key.

"The FBI would say the crime scene is like a fingerprint," Scott said. Interpreted properly, "it is likely to identify the kind of offender who would do this."

According to Scott, the bureau categorizes murder crime scenes as either organized or disorganized. An organized crime scene is one in which the killer exerted careful control of the environment and left little evidence behind. This suggests a well-educated and socially competent suspect. In a disorganized crime scene, things are left in disarray and evidence is plentiful. This suggests a murderer with a low level of education and social competence who may habitually use alcohol or drugs.

The problem with that approach, Scott said, is that crime scenes often have both organized and disorganized components. Take Rader's first crime scene, when he killed Joseph and Julie Otero and their two children on Jan. 15, 1974. There was clear evidence of advance planning and the murderer's domination of the environment - Rader both strangled and suffocated his victims, forcing them to pass out and then allowing them to revive somewhat "as a way to extend their death," Scott said.

But, Scott said, there were disorganized elements as well. Rader -- or BTK for Bind, Torture, and Kill -- left behind the Venetian blind cords he used as a strangling device. He also did not get rid of the bodies. While Scott stated that he has not seen any FBI profile of the BTK killer, who was sentenced to 10 consecutive life sentences last summer, Scott said that "Rader had many of the characteristics of an organized killer." For example, Rader, a resident of a Wichita, Kan., suburb, was employed and lived near his crime scenes. As a result, Scott said the signs of disorganization that were present in his first crime scene and in subsequent ones were potential red herrings, at least in terms of developing a profile. Rader was not, for example, under the influence of alcohol during his killings, nor did he frequently travel and change jobs -- traits of an organized killer under the FBI scheme.

When the FBI develops profiles of serial killers, Scott said the bureau is relying on interviews its investigators have conducted with 36 convicted sexual or serial murderers. Scott said a shortcoming with the database is that it does not include a single female serial killer. Consequently, its applicability to someone like Wuornos, portrayed in the 2003 movie "Monster" by Charlize Theron, "just isn't there," Scott said.

The database's relevance to non-Caucasian serial killers is also lacking, Scott said, as 90 percent of the men interviewed were white. It also doesn't explain a "very rare subset -- children who serially kill," Scott said. Probably the most well-known in this category, Scott said, is Jesse Pomeroy, a Massachusetts boy who, in the 1870s, brutalized other boys when he was only 12 and who killed a 10-year-old girl when he was 14.
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UC Davis Health System is an integrated, academic health system encompassing UC Davis School of Medicine, the 577-bed acute-care hospital and clinical services of UC Davis Medical Center, and the 800-member physician group known as UC Davis Medical Group.

University of California - Davis Health System

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