Saturday, 18 November 2017

"How do we get ahead of crazy if we don't know how crazy thinks" - Netflix's "Mindhunter" series is a stunner

I made the mistake of gulping down the whole of the new Netflix series Mindhunter over the course of two evenings last week. Stunning - if you like that sort of thing, and I do...

...It's based on the book Mindhunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit by John E. Douglas and Mark Olshaker. Douglas is the former FBI agent whose name is most often associated with behavioural "profiling" - i.e. the art/science of answering the question "what sort of animal would do this to another human being?" The profiler's task is to tell investigators what sort of animal they should be looking for - everything from their approximate age, physical build, social class, educational level and criminal history to what sort of clothes they wear, personal hygiene levels, the state of their apartment/house and whether they're divorced, married or living with their mom.

Behavioural profiling didn't start with the FBI behavioural sciences unit in the 1970s, but their decision to conduct extensive interviews with dozens of serial killers in prison (including such notorious criminals as Charles Manson and Richard Speck) provided them with a mass of data to base their profiles on. The Netflix series is very much a dramatisation - for a start, the names of the two main agents, Bob Ressler and John Douglas have been changed - but the interviews with serial killers are all based on actual transcripts. There are one or two missteps (I'm not quite sure why we have to see the Douglas character performing cunnilingus on his girl-friend - twice, no less), there are some scenes that have obviously been gussied up for dramatic effect, and the timeline is all over the place - but there's enough truth in there to allow one to forgive the liberties. The interviews with the serial killers (a phrase which Douglas - who evidently has a reputation as a publicity-hog amongst his former FBI associates - claims to have invented) are rivetting. Here, the agents have a cosy chat with the quietly terrifying 300lb. Co-Ed Killer, Ed Kemper:

Watching Mindhunter sent me back to the book on which it's based, and to another work by Douglas, The Cases that Haunt Us, in which he looks at famous cases from the past - Lizzie Borden, Jack the Ripper, the Black Dahlia, the Lindbergh Baby kidnapping, the Zodiac Killer, the Boston Strangler, and the killing of six-year old JonBenét Ramsey. That led me onto Douglas and Olshaker's 2013 book,  Law & Disorder: Inside the Dark Heart of Murder, which mainly deals with miscarriages of justice, some of which Douglas worked on as a consultant after retiring from the FBI. 

The most interesting cases examined in Law & Disorder - to me, at least - are, again, the killing of JonBenét Ramsey in her Boulder, Colorado home in 1996, and the murder of the 21-year old English student, Meredith Kercher, in her shared flat in Perugia in 2007. With both these cases, I - along with most people who followed them at the time - assumed that the main suspects were guilty. In the Ramsey case, that was one of the little girl's parents, with the other helping to cover up the deed. In the case of Meredith Kercher, that was Meredith's American flatmate, 20-year old Amanda "Foxy Knoxy" Knox, and Knox's 23-year old Italian boyfriend, computer science student Raffaele Sollecito - along with Rudy Guede, a 20-year old Ivory Coast-born drug dealer. As Douglas convincingly demonstrates, the Ramseys had nothing to do with the death of their daughter, and Amanda Knox and her boyfriend were entirely innocent of the murder of poor Meredith Kercher. In both cases, the police immediately came up with a theory, and then moved heaven and earth to try to make the physical evidence support it. In neither case did any of the available forensic evidence support the police's theories (the opposite, in fact). What's more, according to Douglas, in both cases, none of the psychological/behavioural indicators supported the theories. 

As Douglas puts it, "Past behaviour predicts future behaviour". Of course, there are examples of people with no history of violence committing violent crimes - but when somebody commits a violent act out of the blue, there usually has to be a very strong and obvious motive for them to do so. In both these cases, the police invented the motives - JonBenét's weird mother (those creepy beauty pageants!) lost her temper on discovering that her daughter had wet the bed yet again, and lashed out; in the Perugia murder, Amanda Knox was a satanic sex-maniac who was sick of Meredith hounding her about her sloppy housekeeping and being behind with the rent. But there was absolutely nothing in Patsy Ramsey's past to indicate any violent tendencies, and all the stuff about Amanda Knox was pure invention - and, again, there was not one iota of evidence that she had ever committed an act of violence in her whole life. The Meredith Kercher case - over which the Italian criminal justice system should hang its collective head in shame - is particularly galling to Douglas because, as he points out, they caught the sole perpetrator near the start of the investigation. and he's been tried and is serving time (a laughably light 16-year sentence): but, having charged Knox and Solecito with the crime before discovering the actual killer (the only one of the supposed trio of murderers whose DNA was found at the crime scene), the police couldn't bear to lose face by admitting their initial mistake. Ditto the equally incompetent authorities in the Ramsey case. What was there in the backgrounds of the Ramseys or of Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito to suggest any of them would be capable of the monstrous crimes they were supposed to have perpetrated? 

One other point Douglas is very keen to make: whenever satanic ritual abuse (SRA) is alleged to have been involved in murder or child abuse cases, you can be almost certain that Satanism had nothing whatsoever to do with it. 

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