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Guest Blogger: Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D.: Review of Criminology of Homicidal Poisoning

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The Subtle Art of Poisoning

Expert discusses investigative criminological toxicology.

In 1993, Glenn Turner, a police officer in Georgia, named his wife, Lynn, as the beneficiary on his life insurance policy. After she began an affair with a firefighter named Randy Thompson, Turner grew sick and died. The medical examiner ruled it natural. Lynn quickly moved in with Randy. He purchased a life insurance policy but her overspending threatened a potential rift. Pretty soon, he, too, was sick. When he died, it was another “natural death.”

The mothers of these men joined forces and got a new investigation. By the fall of 2001, it became clear that both men had been poisoned with ethylene glycol, i.e., antifreeze, which causes organ failure. Lynn was arrested. An abundance of circumstantial and behavioral evidence linked her to the deaths, and the “black widow” was found guilty. In 2010, she committed suicide in prison by poisoning herself with a prescription medication.

This is just one of the seven “instructive” cases that Dr. Michael Farrell provides in his book, Criminology of Homicidal Poisoning. Others are “American Beauty Killer” Kristin Rossum and the Cooper brothers. He also discusses healthcare killers like Harold Shipman, many of whom used lethal levels of medications. Farrell, a private consultant on the use of poison in homicides, has a substantial background in psychiatry and medical research. This comprehensive textbook links forensic toxicology with criminology, making an important contribution to both fields.

Farrell not only describes how homicidal poisoning fits the most popular criminological theories for why people kill but also examines the nature and lethality of various poisons, identifies trends in poisoning, provides a history, and shows offender traits and victim characteristics. In one chapter, he even discusses issues for investigators and prosecutors who will be taking a poisoning case to trial.

These perpetrators have a lot on their side, and case reconstruction often depends largely on circumstantial evidence, with an emphasis on motive. (Kristin Rossum, for example, was having an affair, for example, and her husband, who’d supposedly committed suicide by fentanyl overdose, was known to be pill-aversive. Rossum had access to the drug.) It took years and persistent family members, along with acknowledgment of investigative errors, to bring Lynn Turner to justice.

Cold case investigators should take note! Many poisonings initially look natural or accidental, or can be passed off as a suicide. Suspicious circumstances, no matter how seemingly slight, should be investigated. Intentionality is key – what do these suspects gain from it? Poisoners can go undetected for years, especially if their victims are members of populations who are expected to die (the sick and elderly).

Successful poisoners are cunning, remorseless, and often greedy or looking for a way out of a difficult situation. They must have the intelligence to study the behavior of a poison and to plan ahead for its use and consequences. They need to know if they prefer a quick or slow death and how to hide the symptoms. Staging plays a significant part.

Stagers find ways to mask symptoms or defer investigation. They might oppose an autopsy and have a body cremated. They might write a suicide note or “confide” to a doctor that the victim was suicidal. They might clean up the scene, wipe a computer search, or surround a search with context that subtracts evidentiary value. They might have a ready explanation if poison is detected. (A minister who “discovered” his overdosed wife dead told police that she was a sleepwalker and must have taken the pills by accident.)

It’s a popular notion that females are more likely to use poison than any other means, which gives the false impression that males rarely poison. Male poisoners apparently outnumber females – at least, of those who are caught. Medical professionals are over-represented, possibly because they have more knowledge of, and access to, drugs and potential poisons. Over and over, we find that healthcare serial killers have administered the “wrong” meds or given an overdose. It’s important that we understand those who decide to kill someone in this manner.

Farrell believes that homicidal poisoning is underestimated. Given how easy it can be to overlook evidence, to accept other explanations, and make investigative missteps, he’s probably right. Poisons can be easy to acquire, and motives to use it are all-too-human.

Katherine Ramsland is a professor of forensic psychology at DeSales University in Pennsylvania, where she also teaches criminal justice. She holds a master’s in forensic psychology from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, a master’s in clinical psychology from Duquesne University, a master’s in criminal justice from DeSales University, and a Ph.D. in philosophy from Rutgers. She has been a therapist and a consultant. Dr. Ramsland has published over 1,000 articles and 60 books.

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Posted by on December 27, 2017 in Book Review, Guest Blogger, Poisons & Drugs

 

Book Review: Jack of Spades by Joyce Carol Oates

JackofSpades

Jack of Spades by Joyce Carol Oates

Publisher: Grove/Atlantic

Pub Date: May 5, 2015

ISBN-10: 0802123945

ISBN-13: 978-0802123947

201 pages

Jack of Spades is a quirky and wonderfully written psychological thriller by one of America’s greatest storytellers. Andrew Rush is a best selling author and enjoys all the trappings that go along with his achievements. But he also writes very dark and disturbing fiction under the pseudonym “Jack of Spades.” But is Andy really Andrew or is he Jack? The lines are blurred and when he is sued for plagiarism by a local woman, who herself is an odd character, the pressure mounts and Andrew begins behaving oddly himself. His external struggles with family and friends pale in comparison to his percolating internal struggles. This story will grab you quickly and not let go.

 
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Posted by on May 15, 2015 in Book Review, Writing

 

Book Review: Compulsion by Allison Brennan

Compulsion

Compulsion by Allison Brennan

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

Pub Date: April 7, 2015

ISBN-10: 1250035023

ISBN-13: 978-1250035028

384 pages

Maxine “Max” Revere is tough, smart, focused, relentless, and doesn’t suffer fools well. These characteristics work well for the well-known, well-respected investigative journalist. They also lead her into more trouble than she could ever imagine. When she turns her lens on Adam Bachman, who is on trial for a series of murders, she opens doors to her past, her family, and her own weaknesses. Was Bachman a lone killer or did he have a helper? More than one helper? Max believes so. Few buy her theories and as she tries to prove them wrong, she discovers things are not as she suspects. Not even close. Was this all a set up? A trap just for her? And if so, why? And by whom?

This is a well-plotted, crisply written thriller that is impossible to put down. Highly recommended.

 
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Posted by on April 7, 2015 in Book Review

 

Book Review: Crash & Burn by Lisa Gardner

CrashBurn

Crash and Burn by Lisa Gardner

Publisher: Dutton Adult

Pub Date: February 3, 2015

ISBN-10: 0525954562

ISBN-13: 978-0525954569

400 pages

Who is Nicole “Nicky” Frank? Is that even her name? Is she crazy? Does she indeed have traumatic brain syndrome from the multiple head injuries she has recently suffered? And who is Vero? A long lost daughter? A figment of Nicki’s imagination? And is her husband Thomas who he says he is? Is he her guardian or her worst enemy? These are the questions Lisa Gardner, the queen of the psychological thriller, poses in Crash and Burn.

And these are the questions Sergeant Wyatt Foster must answer. Brought to the scene of a single car accident, where Nicki rolled her SUV down an embankment, he quickly realizes nothing is at it seems. This disturbing and convoluted thriller will capture readers early and drag them along to the final page. Highly recommended.

 
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Posted by on January 12, 2015 in Book Review, Writing

 

ORIGINAL SIN Review

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A good review of ORIGINAL SIN by Jon Land in the Providence Journal:

Dr. Doug Lyle puts his medical and forensics training to excellent use in the stellar“Original Sin” (Reputation Books, 238 pages, $19.95) that reads like Robin Cook’s “Coma” on steroids. Lyle treats us to not one, but two terrific heroines in Dr. Lucy Wagner and her friend, as well as ours, ex-cop Samantha Cody. It’s a classic riches-to-rags tale that starts when the famously successful Wagner loses a patient and then nearly everything else. Enter ex-boxer Cody. Never one to shy away from a fight, she encounters more than her share of opponents in trying to get to the bottom of a conspiracy at the hands of those who are about to learn to take a punch. Lyle adroitly balances spot-on medical science and technology with adroit plotting and masterful characters. A mix of Michael Crichton and C. J. Box that adds up to seasoned and savory brain candy.

This and other excellent reviews: http://www.providencejournal.com/features/entertainment/books/20141005-thrillers-novels-that-range-from-old-fashioned-to-cutting-edge-cliffhangers.ece

More Info on ORIGINAL SIN: http://www.dplylemd.com/DPLyleMD/Books-SCody.html

 
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Posted by on October 16, 2014 in Book Review, Writing

 

Book Review: Full Measure by T. Jefferson Parker

Full Measure

FULL MEASURE is now available and is excellent.

T. Jefferson Parker has won three Edgar Awards for a reason—he’s a great writer. With FULL MEASURE, he steps away from more traditional crime fiction and into the mainstream literary genre. The result is this wonderful book. Want to know what a character-driven story feels like? Read FULL MEASURE. Characters that will linger with you for a long time. Highly recommended.

http://www.tjeffersonparker.com

 
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Posted by on October 10, 2014 in Book Review, Writing

 

Book Review: Strong Darkness by Jon Land

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STRONG DARKNESS IS AVAILABLE TODAY

Caitlin Strong is back. Boy is she ever. STRONG DARKNESS starts with a bang and never let’s up. With nods to the infamous Judge Roy Bean and her ancestor Texas Ranger William Ray Strong and settings as diverse as Texas and Rhode Island, Caitlin confronts forces that test her skills and threaten her life. As with each Caitlin Strong story, the writing is crisp, and moves with break-neck speed. Jon Land has always known his way around a thriller and this is an outstanding addition to this series. Read this one. Read all of them. You will no doubt become a Strong fan. STRONG DARKNESS is a wild ride. Highly recommended.

Visit Jon’s Site: http://www.jonlandbooks.com

 
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Posted by on September 30, 2014 in Book Review, Writing

 
 
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