Never lose sight of the victim

Rebecca Leaf watches the three-part Channel 4 series ‘What Makes a Murderer’.

Having graduated from Keele University in 2008 with a BSc (Hons) Criminology and Psychology, I have had a varied career in UK Policing, building prosecution files for Crown Court trials, working in Intelligence and now working on an Evidence Based Policing Team, conducting research addressing a wide-range of policing issues. Alongside my studies at Keele, I worked in a restorative justice setting with young offenders in Stoke-on-Trent. So I was interested to see Channel 4’s take on ‘What Makes a Murderer’, where a neuro-criminologist and a forensic psychologist conducted various tests on three convicted murderers to see if there was anything which may differentiate them from the wider population. The programme, for me, raises many interesting questions regarding the conflict between academic curiosity and the potential to give offenders a reason for their behaviour, beyond personal responsibility.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, Cesare Lombroso, began investigating the possibility of identifying offenders by their physical attributes. For example, a murderer could be identified by their ‘hooked nose’, which ‘so often imparts to criminals the aspects of birds of prey’, creatures known for their predatory and murderous ways. In recent years, thank goodness, our knowledge of criminal and psychological behaviour has moved on, allowing us to scientifically test someone’s genetic make-up, scan their brain, monitor hormones and conduct evidence-based evaluations of their personalities, to identify potential reasons why someone may have behaved in a certain way.

There are clear implications for prevention. For example, the subject of the second episode, Paul Aldridge, spent 22 years in prison for the murder of an elderly hitchhiker, and Professor Adrian Raine and Dr Vicky Thakordas-Desai were able to identify both biological and social factors which could account for Paul’s violent behaviour during the offence. Raine said that ‘if the appropriate interventions had been put in place, early on where the risk factors in Paul’s life had been picked up, things could have been dramatically different.’

If those interventions aren’t in place, we are into the realms of responsibility. In Raine’s words from episode 2, ‘this new science could change our concept of who should be punished. Because if you have these risk factors, which were not of your making, then are you truly responsible?’ And indeed in recent years, criminal lawyers, particularly in the United States, have begun using their client’s neuro-criminological diagnoses as a defence. Nita Farahany’s 2016 article in the Journal of Law and the Biosciences was able to identify almost 3000 cases in the US, between 2005 and 2012, where offenders had used the results of this type of investigation in their own defence. In these cases about 20 per cent of defendants got some kind of favourable outcome in court.

This leaves me wondering: what impact does this all have on the victims of these crimes? A driving factor for me choosing policing as a career was to help victims get the justice that is often required to gain closure on an awful event in their lives. When watching ‘What Makes a Murderer’ my thoughts throughout the programme kept coming back to the family and friends of the three victims, especially when the offenders’ culpability was being brought into direct question.

In the first episode, John Massey, who shot a club bouncer at point-blank range and subsequently spent more than 40 years in prison, stated that the fact his victim was a club bouncer made it more difficult for him to feel responsible for the murder because ‘he [the victim] has to take on his own responsibilities [as a bouncer].’ John showed very little sympathy for this victim during the episode and only hints at remorse when faced by his own potential psychopathy. As we know, those with psychopathic personalities, while feeling no real empathy themselves, are very skilled at replicating emotions they have seen others exhibiting. As a viewer, his ‘apology’ seemed empty and like something he felt he ‘should’ say rather than something he genuinely felt. John became agitated when asked how he felt about his label as a ‘murderer’.

In stark contrast to this, Paul Aldridge from episode two made no excuses for his offending. ‘I take responsibility for what I’ve done. Destroyed a lot of lives. You know, there was my victim, his family. And then there was my own family.’ These two men committed similar offences, yet I came away with some sympathy for Paul due, in large part, to the fact that he still appeared to take full responsibility for his actions, despite being presented with a wealth of evidence giving him a potential explanation for the way he behaved.

Restorative justice, an area I have worked in, usually involves bringing the offender and victim together to discuss the offence. It gives the victim an opportunity to explain to the offender how the crime affected them and helps the offender acknowledge and take responsibility for their actions. It is rare that a victim feels brave enough to agree to meet with an offender, especially when the offence involved violence. But I have seen the success of this approach, first-hand, when working with young offenders. I strongly believe it should be more widely used in the criminal justice system.  A teacher I worked with, who had been seriously assaulted by an ex-pupil who blamed her for his expulsion, agreed to meet with the offender face to face. Initially he showed little remorse, but after hearing the teacher explain how the assault made her fearful to leave her home with her children, he began showing real emotion and was able to take responsibility for his actions by providing a genuine apology. We subsequently spoke to his victim a number of weeks later and she told us that the process had led to her losing all fear of the offender, and feeling that he had heard and understood what he had put her through, allowing her to move on.

As a psychology graduate I will always be interested in understanding why humans behave in the ways that they do, especially if it can prevent future victims being created. But with my experience in criminal justice I feel that we must not lose sight of the victim, their family and friends, who are at the heart of these crimes. After all, there is something incredibly powerful about an offender saying, ‘I did this, I am responsible, and I am sorry’.

Reviewed by Rebecca Leaf, a Keele University Psychology and Criminology graduate, with more than a decade of experience in UK Policing.

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