No. 8 on my list of “Top Ten Abuses of Science” in court is “criminal psychological profiling.” Why? It isn’t a science; it’s an art. Psychologists can’t explain criminal behavior. Why should law-enforcement officials be able to? When a criminal profiler gets on the stand in a murder trial all the prosecution is trying to do is prejudice the jury against the defendant (usually because he’s a young, white male who was abused as a child).
What’s more, the law prohibits behaviors, not thoughts: you aren’t a murderer, because you enjoyed killing a person; you’re a murderer if you kill a person in violation of the law. The law says any killing is only justifiable homicide if the killing is in self-defense or the defense of another person and then only if you use the minimum amount of force to restrain the attacker. Prosecutors tell juries repeatedly that motive is irrelevant to the crime of murder. They’re happy to announce that they don’t have to prove motive, only means and opportunity.
You can commit murder if you’re insane, but in many cases you can’t be found guilty if you’re insane. Why? Because a murderer must be able to “form intent to kill,” but the insane are thought to be incapable of reasoning, which is what intent is all about.
As I understand it (and I’m not a lawyer), the U.S. Supreme Court has decided that certain mental states give defendants special rights and privileges. These include certain types of mental illness, low I.Q., and immaturity (that is, under the legal age). So, a judge may find a person to be incompetent to stand trial–although it seems to me this never happens. A jury may find a person to be insane and therefore innocent of any crime–which occasionally does happen, and in most such cases the defendant is confined to a mental hospital. However, a jury may also find a mentally ill person to be guilty of a capital crime. When this happens, the Supreme Court has said the person may not be executed. Nor may a person with low I.Q. be executed or a person who was a minor at the time the crime was committed. (So, if you plan to murder someone, just be sure you know what your I.Q. is and can prove you’re under 18 years old.) (On another subject, I would like to know why a child can be incompetent to be executed but competent to stand trial as an adult.) (My favorite website for information on the Supremes is OYEZ.)
I recently watched an interesting program on the ID: Investigation Discovery cable channel, “Most Evil.” I’m not sure which episode it was (it took me a bit by surprise). In this series, Columbia University’s Dr. Michael Stone explores the minds of the most evil of murderers. His approach is quite refreshing (at least in so far as I observed). Unlike most FBI profilers I’ve seen, Dr. Stone simply asks killers questions and listens. He doesn’t characterize these people. He seems genuinely interested in their thought processes and genuinely astonished by what he learns from them.
I’m curious about whether Dr. Stone ever testified in a murder trial and, if so, whether he testified for the prosecution or the defense. (I’ll have to research that.) If he’s as scientific in his approach as he appeared to be in the episode of “Most Evil” that I watched, I suspect that he would tend to favor the prosecution: after all, if you’re a scientist you know that evil is what you do, not what you think.