Dr. Katherine Ramsland is a multi-published and widely-known expert on forensic psychology. She earned a master’s degree in forensic psychology from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, a master’s degree in clinical psychology from Duquesne University, and a Ph. D. in philosophy from Rutgers University. She currently chairs the Department of Social Sciences at DeSales University in Pennsylvania, where she teaches forensic psychology and graduate-level criminal justice.
DPL: Katherine, welcome to the Writer’s Forensics Blog. Great to have you here.
KR: Thanks for the opportunity.
DPL: Let’s just jump right into it: Serial Killers? Nature or nurture?
KR: It’s a complex question, Doug, because it’s certainly both, but no one knows just how much of each part is most evident. In fact, the balance between physiological/genetic make-up and environmental influences (parenting, toxic substances, mental health resources, drug abuse, peers and role models, poverty, gang proximity) differs from one individual to another. A head injury, for example, could cause impulsive violence in one person, while the same injury has no effect on someone else, and a third might be violent without any head injury. That’s a simplistic way of saying that for any supposedly causal factor, it will not operate in the same way, across the board, in every individual. I heard a case once that I thought summed it up: Two brothers were watching a hanging scene in a Western. One was indifferent, the other masturbated to it. See what I mean? The combination of physiology, genetics, role models, reactions and responses is the most salient factor, but you can’t easily work with that in the categorical manner that criminologists and media professionals prefer. There really is no single influential fact across the cases, but for some reason, people want to believe there is. Maybe to isolate it would make us feel safer, but that’s not consistent with the phenomena. It’s one of the reasons I wrote “Inside the Minds of Serial Killers.” I was tired of the tendency to lump all serial killers together with a single type of motive or causal agency.
DPL: The recent case of the Florida teenager who has been charged with brutalizing, dissecting, and posing cats on the owners’ lawns has buzzed around the media. We know the triad of bed wetting, fire starting, and animal cruelty is in the background of many serial predators. What other behaviors might indicate future violence?
KR: The supposed “triad” is based on a very limited and non-randomized sample of interviews with incarcerated white male criminals in a few prisons who were willing to talk, so we don’t really know if it holds true as a general factor. I prefer other studies that have more validity. Future violence is actually best predicted with the various types of psychopathy scales that have been devised for children. The behaviors that stand out for budding psychopaths who are the most apt to become violent involve unmotivated deception, tendency to blame others, callous disregard, and ADHD – a combination of them all. Such children will tend to manipulation, deflect responsibility, damage property, steal, do poorly in activities that require sustained discipline and focus, and play cruel pranks. They will also exercise their need for control on others who are weaker, including animals, and this could involve experiments, mutilation and killing. The bedwetting part, which is not true across the board, seems to be tied into the same brain mechanisms that feed impulsivity, so this could be a brain disorder.
DPL: The posing of the cat corpses could be considered the “Signature” of this killer. What are the most unusual signatures you’ve encountered in your work?
KR: Surgical removal of the eyes, biting in specific patterns, blood drinking, odd postmortem sexual practices, and specific types of complicated knots in ligatures. One of the most interesting cases lately involved the female serial killer in Iran who utilized methods from Agatha Christie novels. That’s more of an MO than a true signature, although it does reveal things about her personality, too.