A study conducted by Lewis et al. (1985) and published in the American Journal Of Psychiatry examined the childhoods of nine convicted murders with the aim of discovering what characteristics (if any) they had in common. The main characteristics identified fell into four main categories :
- Acts of violence as children
- Psychiatric/medical history
- Psychiatric history of parents / first-degree relatives
- History of parental abuse
ACTS OF VIOLENCE AS CHILDREN :
All of the nine individuals in the study had perpetrated extreme violent acts as children/adolescents. Examples of these violent acts include :
- two had committed robbery at knifepoint
- one, at the age of four, had thrown a dog out of a window
- one had set his bed on fire
- one, at the age of ten, had threatened his teacher with a razor
PSYCHIATRIC / MEDICAL HISTORY :
- three had been hospitalized in psychiatric units during childhood
- three had histories of grand mal seizures and abnormal EEGs ( the term EEG stands for electroencephalogram, which is a procedure that measures the electrical activity in the brain).
- one was macrocephalic (the word ‘macrocephalic’ refers to a condition that results in the affected individual developing an abnormally large cranium) and had an abnormal EEG
- three had histories of ‘losing contact with reality’
- six had sustained severe head injuries as children
PSYCHIATRIC HISTORY OF PARENTS / FIRST-DEGREE RELATIVES :
- all nine had a first-degree relative who had been hospitalized in a psychiatric unit or was known to be psychotic
- five had a mother who had been hospitalized in a psychiatric unit
- four had fathers who were known to be psychotic (one of whom had been hospitalized in a psychiatric unit)
HISTORY OF PARENTAL ABUSE :
- seven had been severely, physically abused by one or both parents
- six had witnessed extreme domestic violence
Based on the findings of the above study and other relevant, previously conducted studies by other researchers, the authors of this study conclude that whilst it is not possible to predict whether individuals will commit murder at some point in the future when a person has been affected by all of the above factors (i.e. a prior history of violence, neuropsychiatric impairment, parental psychosis and a history of having been physically abused as a child), therapeutic intervention is necessary, irrespective of considerations relating to what one may, or may not, be able to predict about the individual’s future conduct in relation to violence.
It seems difficult to disagree with this conclusion as anyone who is affected by the above combination of factors is likely to be experiencing extreme levels of mental distress.
Note: The above description of the study is a simplification to convey the main findings as concisely as possible; a full description of the study can be accessed here.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)