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How Fortunetellers and Media Contribute to Murder

by Joel A. Dvoskin, Ph.D., ABPP

I believe that national saturation publicity of mass, spree, and serial murders, especially at or near the time of the crimes, has created a market for killing that provides predictable reinforcement to killers in the form of intense and enduring national publicity. Thus, national saturation coverage of these crimes in a very real sense contributes to more deaths, as it will raise the chances of other perpetrators following this same path.

My colleagues and I did a very thorough investigation of the Columbine killers last year. One of the things we learned is that Eric Harris predicted, only weeks before the massacre, and with impressive accuracy, the behavior of the national print and electronic media; he knew that he and Dylan Klebold would be made famous, and that others would emulate them. There is little doubt that this provided at least part of the motivation for the murders at Columbine.

I have some very good friends who worked in or were trained by the FBI Behavioral Sciences Unit. You won't see them making fools of themselves on TV, because they understand the value and the limitations of what they do. They know that criminal psychological profiling is generally useful in formulating hypotheses about crimes based upon a thorough knowledge of the crimescene, which is then compared to a database of previously solved crimes. Like psych testing, these similarities are only useful to the extent that they are based on similar datasets, and this is often not known at the time the profile is first constructed.

The best "profilers" I know are first and foremost good and very experienced investigators. Their successes are almost always the result of long, hard, old-fashioned police investigations. Just like forensic psychologists, they know that profile-based hypotheses are only jumping off points, and each must be corroborated before assuming it to be correct. Profiles are also not one-time, static predictions of who the killer will turn out to be. Like a good psychological evaluation, the profile is a living set of hypotheses that changes as new information comes in, confirming some hypotheses and disconfirming others.

Good profilers usually contribute many good and insightful questions to an investigation, and very few answers. I have never heard of a profiler in real life successfully identifying a perp as a "one-legged man in a blue VW singing show tunes." It never happens. People who say stuff like that are laughed at. I remember one profiler claiming on national TV that "obviously" Andrew Cunanan began his killing spree when he found out he was HIV positive.

This is of course what fortunetellers do to impress us; they assert facts that are statistically (actuarially) likely, and when they are right, they give us a knowing look. Well, despite the fact that Cunanan was reportedly gay and sexually promiscuous, he died HIV negative, and amazingly I never saw the profiler on TV declaring that he was dead wrong.

I was taught that serial murder was a white, middle-age crime. Wayne Williams was neither. Profiles of extreme and unusual crimes must be taken carefully, with a salt mine, because they are by definition based on very little data, and thus run the high risk of overgeneralization. The danger of course is to erroneously rule out suspects solely on the basis that they do not fit a profile. It would be like claiming that Ronald Reagan could never be President because there had never before been a (professional) actor who became President. He was the first. The profile would have been wrong.

The Montgomery County Police Chief's rhetoric during the recent investigation may have been a bit intemperate. Nevertheless, the inane, rampant, and uninformed speculation by criminologists, profilers, and mental health professionals is at best useless and at worst dangerously irresponsible, for several reasons:

  1. First, none of these co-called experts has been briefed, so they don't know anything at all about what evidence (if any) may exist. As any real homicide investigator will tell you, the only hypotheses that are ever useful are based upon evidence/data.

  2. The database on which these speculations are built probably does not include a series of crimes that are very much like this one.

  3. Psychological profiling, to the extent that it offers anything at all, is based on making inferences (based upon a large database of previously solved crimes) about the crimescene itself. In this case, because of the nature of these crimes (shots from a distance) there is virtually no information at all to work with. And again, the blessedly rare nature of this type of crime creates a very small database; generalizing from a small dataset is inherently dangerous.

  4. One thing we know about those serial and spree murderers who have been caught alive is that most stay informed of the publicity around their killings. Thus, any information provided to the public is presumptively provided to the perpetrator. Sharing information about geographical profiling, for example, runs the very likely risk of causing the profile to be invalid, by suggesting to the perp that he or she alter their geographical pattern.

So what tripe do we hear from these fools? "He is angry." (Ya think?) "He feels insignificant." Gee, that narrows down the suspect pool to everybody but the egomaniacs I am watching on TV.

In summary, most of what these people say is uninformed speculation, so vague as to be utterly useless. But in the unlikely event that they actually knew anything useful enough to share, doing so would increase the risk to future victims by giving vital information to the perpetrator about how to avoid detection by these self-styled geniuses. More importantly, by making the unknown perpetrator appear to be interesting and fascinating, the media and these "profilers" provide the killers with positive reinforcement; in some cases, it is exactly the type of publicity they were seeking in the first place.

During the recent sniper investigation, I was invited to appear on a variety of national TV news shows. In a way, I wanted to agree, if only to say the things I have written in this note. But so far I can't figure out a way to do so that won't make me part of the same potentially harmful circus. With one exception, I couldn't get them to promise me that they would present the information in a manner that wouldn't add to the excitement, drama, and fame that I believe is likely to fuel copycats and piggybacks in the future.

What I really want is for one of these TV news shows to do a show on the damaging role played by the media by aggrandizing these criminals, thus creating a market for mass murder. So far, they have not seemed all that interested in this kind of critical self-reflection. Go figure.

Let me close by saying that it is a mistake to damn the whole idea of profiling, because many bad guys have been caught with the real and demonstrable assistance of profilers. But these cases did not involve any of the Carnac-like magical profiling that one sees on TV. Though the profiles may have helped, the collars were always the result of competent, painstaking police investigations. As for the folks who offer uninformed and possibly harmful speculation on TV, whether they are profilers or psychologists, they embarrass all of us.

I have long advocated a simple approach to ethics: Don't misrepresent yourself; only say what you know and how you know it; readily admit what you don't know; and keep all of your promises. Seems to me that adherence to those rules would clear the air—literally and figuratively.

—Joel A. Dvoskin, Ph.D., ABPP
Diplomate in Forensic Psychology
University of Arizona College of Medicine

For more information about Dr. Joel A. Dvoskin, or to read more articles by this leading leading forensic psychologist, click here.


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