Under the Microscope

Welcome to “Under the Microscope,” Killer Nashville’s very own exclusive Forensics Corner. We will unearth, demystify, and bring you interesting, factual information about the world of forensics from experts in various fields. From dead bodies, to suspicious substances, to computers with a mind of their own, this column will explore the macabre, gory, and unexplainable with the truth in scientific terms for writers to use at their will.

Writers who incorporate crime in their stories need to understand forensic psychology and its importance. Forensic psychology has become integral to crime solving, and is a valuable piece of the puzzle in judicial system. Those who practice forensic psychology may work with law enforcement agencies, or testify in trials as expert witnesses. They can come from different branches of psychology, like clinical or social psychology. In his debut column for Killer Nashville Magazine, author and psychologist Richard Helms takes us to the psychological origins of crime.

The Cradle of Criminality

By Richard Helms

In my novel Bobby J., I examined a fictitious Middle American urban juvenile detention center, and the impact that a single brutal crime committed by a teenager has on the lives of multiple people associated with that detention center, among others.

In many ways, this is my most autobiographical novel, given that I was the clinical director in a twenty-four bed locked juvenile treatment center in North Carolina for seven years in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Following that, I was the court psychologist for four counties in North Carolina for almost a decade, before retiring from active practice to become a college professor. My primary income during that decade came through grants from the Juvenile Crime Prevention Council, and from another organization called Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, so a great deal of my forensic work with the legal system focused on the juvenile courts.

Juvenile courts today are almost ubiquitous in the US, but this was not always the case. It’s a curious coincidence, but the battle for legal rights for children might not have occurred at all had it not been for an organization devoted to non-humans.

In New York, in 1873, a nurse named Etta Wheeler visited the home of Francis and Mary Connolly, and found their adopted daughter Mary Ellen Wilson chained to a bed, covered in bruises, and emaciated from a diet of bread and water. Nurse Wheeler, enraged by this cruelty, demanded that the girl be handed over to her, but the Connollys told her to mind her own business.

Mary Ellen Wilson, 1874
Mary Ellen Wilson, 1874

Unable to get Mary Ellen’s parents to hand over the child, and aghast at the treatment they believed they were allowed to inflict on her, Etta Wheeler approached local agency after local agency, seeking any organization with police powers, that might help her to liberate Mary Ellen Wilson from her monstrous parents. None of them would help her. Many stated that it was inappropriate for them to interfere in what they considered sacred parental rights. Others simply could not be bothered.

Desperate, and knowing that time for Mary Ellen Wilson was drawing short, Nurse Wheeler approached a man named Henry Bergh, and asked him to help. Unlike the other agencies, Bergh agreed to do whatever he was able.

Bergh petitioned the court to take charge of Mary Ellen. However, in order to gain custody of Mary Ellen, Bergh had to testify in court that she was “an animal”. This was because Bergh was the director of the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the only agency in New York that would advocate for Mary Ellen. The only grounds available to Bergh were to prove that the Connollys were violating the only applicable statute available at the time: cruelty to animals.

That’s right. True juvenile justice in this country for a human child was only available from the ASPCA.

Mary Ellen Wilson was placed, eventually, into the care of Etta Wheeler’s sister, and grew up to marry and have children of her own, whom she undoubtedly treated with greater love and humanity than she had ever received from Francis Connolly.

One of the reasons justice was so difficult to achieve for Mary Ellen Wilson was the fact that there was only one court system in the United States, and it was focused on adults. Children, who were largely seen as the property of their parents or guardians, had no avenue of last resort when their rights were violated.

Sixteen years later, in 1899, the very first Juvenile Court in the United States was founded in Illinois.

Many people believe that Juvenile Court is only a place for the meting out of justice to juvenile delinquents. In fact, a great deal of the work of Juvenile Courts in most jurisdictions of the U.S. is focused on prevention of delinquency, by providing interventions early in the developmental process for children at extreme risk of illegal activity.

As a court psychologist, I was charged with providing psychological evaluations to the court, in order to assist judges in making appropriate plans for intervening in the lives of youths headed for greater trouble. As such, I was always acutely aware that every evaluation I performed was, by definition, a developmental evaluation. Children and adolescents do not think like adults, because their brains and cognitive abilities are still forming until long after age eighteen.

Court Psychologist
Via 123RF.com

In the average fifteen-year-old, for instance, the part of the brain that engages in rational decision-making, analytical activity, and future-oriented thinking (the prefrontal cortex) is very poorly developed compared with the part of the brain most involved in emotional responses (the limbic system), which is almost fully developed by the middle teens. Because of this, teenagers tend to make most of their decisions based on emotional factors, rather than thinking through all the possible physical/emotional/social consequences of their actions.

This is why you can get Marty McFly, in the movie Back To The Future, to do just about anything you want him to, simply by calling him ‘chicken’. It’s also the reason why, for far too many teenagers, the very last words they will speak will be, “Hey, y’all! Watch this!”

While supervision and careful guidance can help protect children and teenagers from their emotion-based decision-making, more direct preventive action may be necessary when it comes to stopping youthful delinquency before it becomes adult lifelong criminality. There are many warning signs that, if observed, might serve as impetus for such an intervention.

For instance, the FBI has developed a profiling tool called the McDonald Triad. After examining the histories of dozens of serial killers, they discovered some key actuarial variables that each of them had in common. They included bedwetting after age ten, fire setting as a child, and animal cruelty as a child.

The problem with the McDonald Triad is that it is not universal among children who grow up to be serial killers. While it may be a contributory factor to the overall developmental trajectory in children who do become serial killers, it is neither necessary nor sufficient to cause serial criminality in adults. One reason for this is that adult criminals are a heterogeneous population. They are not a one-size-fits-all class of people. Each adult criminal has different motivating factors that promote his or her individual criminal behavior.

One of the tasks of forensic researchers is to try to develop taxonomies of criminal behaviors. A taxonomy is nothing more than a system of classification, which allows researchers to place people into groups organized along common characteristics.

A researcher at Duke University named Terrie Moffitt has attempted to develop just such a taxonomy focused on juvenile offenders, based on the likelihood of continued criminal behavior into adulthood. She suggests that there are two primary groups of adolescent offenders. She calls the first group Life Course Persistent Offenders, and the second group Adolescent Limited Offenders.

Life Course Persistent Offenders tend to demonstrate significant levels of juvenile delinquency—including felony behaviors—beginning in early adolescence, and continuing long into adulthood.

Adolescent Limited Offenders, as their name suggests, only seem to engage in delinquent behaviors during adolescence, and stop as they near adulthood.

When Moffitt began looking closely at the developmental experiences of these two groups, she noted significant differences between them, which may be predictive of their life-long criminal potential.

Life Course Persistent Offenders, she discovered, generally demonstrate a clear progression of antisocial behavior across the lifespan, and continue antisocial behavior across all kinds of conditions and situations.

She noted a dependable progression of behavioral and cognitive problems in these children throughout childhood into adulthood, including: biting and hitting at age 4; shoplifting and truancy by age 10; selling drugs and stealing cars by age 16; robbery and rape at age 22; fraud and child abuse at age 30.

According to Moffitt, Life Course Persistent Offenders exhibit significant neurological problems during childhoods. They tend to have difficult inborn temperaments as infants that include irritability, strong mood swings, excessive tantrum behavior, and aggressive behavior toward other children that often results in injury.

Developmentally, Life Course Persistent Offenders present with a significant history of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, learning disabilities, and lower general IQ scores compared to general population.

Socially, Moffitt has determined that a significant number of Life Course Persistent Offenders could be classified in a peer status referred to as “rejected children” by two researchers named Wentzel and Asher. Rejected children are not accepted by many of their peers. They tend to be children whom no other children name as being ‘best friends’. Many rejected children are the product of homes in which their parents neither provide clear expectations and limits, nor provide a sense of acceptance and involvement.

These children are largely left to their own devices to learn the ins-and-outs of society, and they tend to do so with a marked preference for meeting their own elemental needs. As a result, they demonstrate self-serving behavior from a very early age, and continue to do so throughout life.

Children who later become Life Course Persistent Offenders tend to have lower self-esteem, feelings of insecurity, inferiority, and inadequacy, poorer impulse control, shorter tempers, and more readily aggressive behavior than their peers.

They also demonstrate what University of Vancouver psychology researcher Robert Hare describes as “Criminal Versatility”. Their crimes tend to be diverse, and often spontaneous and opportunistic. Their crimes tend to be progressive in nature over time, and may become somewhat more sophisticated. These individuals, as they progress from juvenile delinquency to adult criminality, may have significant periods of incarceration with progressively shorter periods between incarcerations.

Most importantly, Life Course Persistent Offenders probably represent between 5-10% of male juvenile court-adjudicated delinquents, and perhaps 2% of female adjudicated delinquents. It probably should come as no surprise that this small group of juvenile offenders account for an inordinately large percentage of actual crimes that come to the attention of juvenile court judges.

In contrast to Life Course Persistent Offenders, Dr. Moffitt has discovered that Adolescent Limited Offenders present with a somewhat less extreme history of problems. While, like Life Course Persistent Offenders, they begin offending during their adolescent years, they also stop offending around the 18th birthday (or earlier in states that have an earlier cutoff age for adult prosecution, such as North Carolina). Their teenage offending patterns may be similar to or identical to those of Life Course Persistent Offender adolescents in terms of severity, violence, and frequency, but they display these behaviors only during adolescence.

One huge distinction between Life Course Persistent Offenders and Adolescent Limited Offenders is the nature of their developmental divergences. Adolesent Limited Offenders, as a group, demonstrate fewer identifiable neurological and cognitive problems. They have much better social statuses compared to Life Course Persistent Offender adolescents, and tend to have learned how to get along with others better during childhood. Adolescent Limited Offenders tend to demonstrate higher levels of self-esteem, and better emotional regulation and behavior inhibitions.

More importantly, they tend to be better at learning from their mistakes, which means that they can begin to engage in greater behavioral and emotional control as they near adulthood, in contrast to Life Course Persistent Offenders, who do not appear to readily learn from their experiences, and as a result make the same mistakes over and over into adulthood.

The offenses of Adolescent Limited Offenders are more likely to involve behaviors symbolizing adult privilege and autonomy from parental control (vandalism, theft, drug and alcohol offenses, for instance), and their offenses tend to be more geared toward acquisition of financial gain rather than expression of anger and frustration.

As I mentioned earlier, I came to regard every psychological evaluation I conducted for the juvenile courts, during the time I worked as a forensic psychologist, to be—first and foremost—a developmental evaluation. By examining the historical, educational, intellectual, physical, and social histories of youthful delinquent offenders who were sent to me for evaluation, I could begin to develop a sense of their long-term potential for continued criminal behavior. In a sense, that was what the judges were asking for—some way to determine just which level of intervention would be most successful in deterring the children and adolescents who came into their courts from a life of crime.

With the possible exception of true psychopaths—who are born with physical brain deformities that more or less determine their antisocial life course—lifelong criminals are made rather than born. They are very carefully shaped by their life experiences, by their neuropsychology, by their parenting, and by their psychosocial relationships with their peers. In the time of Mary Ellen Wilson, there was no real way to intervene in these destructive developmental trajectories, because there were no social institutions such as the juvenile courts that cared enough to try.

Today, because of the work of people like Etta Wheeler, Henry Bergh, Terrie Moffitt, and many, many hundreds of others researchers, legal scholars, and direct service providers, we have the tools to recognize the danger signals in children and adolescents, and to help those children move from a path that would otherwise guarantee a life of crime, to a new path of personal responsibility and achievement.

richard helmsRichard Helms retired from active practice in 2002, after a quarter century as a forensic psychologist, to become a college psychology professor at a North Carolina community college, where he now teaches Forensic Psychology as one of his course offerings. The author of eighteen novels and numerous short stories, Helms has been nominated for the Private Eye Writers of America Shamus Award five times, the Short Mystery Fiction Society Derringer Award five times, twice for the ITW Thriller Award, and once for the Mystery Readers International Macavity Award. He has won the Derringer Award twice, and the Thriller Award once. In addition, he has been nominated four times for the Killer Nashville Silver Falchion Award. His most recent novel, Older than Goodbye, was released by Five Star/Cengage in October 2014. He is presently working on the fifth novel in his New Orleans-based Pat Gallegher Series, and the first title in a new private eye series set in Charleston, SC. Richard Helms and his wife Elaine, the parents of two grown children, live in a small town in North Carolina. www.RichardHelms.net

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