2005-12-05

Profiling Across the Ages


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Who was Jack the Ripper? Did Lizzie Borden kill her parents, and if so, why? Did the Lindbergh kidnapper have inside help? Who kidnapped JonBenet? My current read, The Cases That Haunt Us, by John Douglas, the father of the FBI's profiling program, doesn't claim to definitively answer these questions, but it does explore them in depth and offers up some interesting insights.

So far I've read through the Lindbergh case.

Douglas lays out each crime, the evidence, the trial and the historical investigative work. Then, to the best of his ability, he applies his own profiling skills to the investigation and also describes how he might go about sealing the case. For example, in both the Borden murders and the Lindbergh kidnapping there was a mountain of circumstantial evidence pointing to LIzzie Borden and the German carpenter. But the cases confound experts to this day because each lacked that one final lynchpin; a credible eyewitness or a reasonable confession; that would remove doubt and bring closure. Douglas describes the techniques he would have used in questioning suspects and witnesses to bring about a confessionl

It may sound like hocus pocus, but from some of Douglas' other readings, the techniques work. Obviously a murder case is life and death for the suspect - you wouldn't think the suspect would volunteer anything if they had a chance of getting off. But in one case, simply by having the murder weapon conspicuously placed in the room made the suspect come so unglued that they gave up the whole case. In a couple of the cases so far in this book, Douglas explains how he would, rather than trying to elicit a confession head on, take the suspect on a side track, and get them to start discussing some of the more emotional particulars of their motive and then ease them back toward the crime. The approach depends on the personality of the suspect and the nature of the crime. Fascinating stuff.

Cases That Haunt differs from some of Douglas' other writings in that the crimes are outilned less graphically. There is still a lot of detail, but it is presented in a more clinical manner. Maybe it's because he didn't work these directly, or maybe because his aim is a little different. The first Douglas book I read was his first, Mindhunter, which is pretty much a catalog of some of Douglas' most horrific cases, and he spares nothing. This one is engrossing, but it's only for the strong. It took me days to get rid of that queasy feeling, and even now, occasionally something will come back to me.

If nothing else, I learned a lot about the cases that I didn't know. For one, I'd never even heard of LIzzie Borden. Jack the Ripper and Lindbergh I vaguely knew of, but that's about all.

In Douglas' books I am most interested in the profiling techniques. From seemingly irrelevant data collected at the crime scenes, things I would never even consider useful clues, the FBI was able to put together a profile of Ted Bundy right down to the kind of vehicle he drove. Mindhunter was light on this kind of thing, and at the time I had just assumed he didn't want to educate prospective serial criminals. Cases, however, gets into a lot of more of the profiling techniques. As if to rebut those who would accuse him of developing a how to, or perhaps a how not to for violent criminals, Douglas offers this:
"... let me assure you in the plainest terms that any individual who thinks he or she can outsmart the law that way will make so many behavioral errors, leave so many other inadvertant behavioral clues in the commission of the crime and its aftermath, it will be easier rather than more difficult for us to crack the case.

It's a great read if you're up for it.

It's a great read, but a word of caution to those who are interested: This is a book is a "don't want to put it down" grabber. But, with all the detail, you must put it down from time to time or quit your job.

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