The process of criminal profiling as it pertains to serial killers is extremely interesting and much more common than one would first think. This study deals with the research into the developmental and psychological approaches to serial killers. In the process of studying these offenders, researchers have discovered that crime scene manifestations of behavioral patterns enabled the investigators to discover much about the offender (Jones The Process of Criminal Profiling When Applied To A Serial Killer 1). Most crime scenes can tell long detailed stories, and with the right investigators following every detail within that story, the positive chance of finding a conclusion to that story is not always there. Investigators must always keep in mind the fact that normal human behavior, traits, and patterns usually remain consistent, regardless of the activity being performed. Whether a serial killer knows it or not, every murder they commit, they leave their distinguishable mark in some way or another, and that is the key lead that criminal profilers use to catch the correct person (Munn and Douglas Violent Crime Scene Analysis: Modus Operandi, Signature, and Staging 1). Criminal profiling is an effective way to identify and find a criminal.
The term “serial” applied to the word murder or killer can raise problems and questions. Serial implies that several murders have taken place at different times. No universal definition is currently used to describe the term “serial murder”. Three key factors to a serial murderer are the number of victims, time period, and the fact that each killing in some way or another is methodical (The Very Emphasis Of The Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Kill 3). Processes of examining all aspects of the crime scene in order to build up a picture of the person who committed the crime are called profiling (Forensic Psychology 1). Profiling can piece together such a complete picture of the offender with traits of the offender’s including sex, age, occupation, disorders, upbringing, marital status, home, type of car they drive, etc (Forensic Psychology 2).
Before the term serial killer was coined in the mid-1970’s, such murders were referred to as stranger murders. The term stranger murders was used to differentiate the victims of serial killings from the victims who were killed by people he or she knew, usually family members. The great killers of history had been ones who had killed their wives, or possibly massacred their family members one by one. For most people, the idea and the emotional components of intrafamilial violence could seem somewhat understandable. At one time or another, most people processed the thought of raising an angry hand at a child or spouse, and could even comprehend how, in a fit of rage, such an emotion could escalate to murder. In contrast, the emotional components of a stranger murder seemed unreasonable and incomprehensible to people (Ressler and Shachtman I Have Lived In The Monster 46).
There are three possible manifestations of offender behavior at a crime scene—modus operandi, personation or signature, and staging. Each of these manifestations plays an important role of analyzing a crime scene in terms of human behavior (Douglas and Munn 1). Modus operandi is the offender’s actions while committing the crime, and the victimology. Unfortunately, investigators have a tendency to place too much significance on the modus operandi when linking separate crimes to one another. In many cases, the use of modus operandi and victimology alone can fail to link a serial killers to all of his or her possible murders. The victim’s response can also affect modus operandi. A prime example would be if a rapist has problems controlling a victim, he will modify the modus operandi to adjust the resistance. He may use duct tape, other ligatures, or a weapon on the victim. Or, he may even injure the victim to incapacitate her. If such measures are ineffective, he may resort to greater violence or he may kill them. Incarceration can also impact on the future modus operandi of offenders, especially in career criminals. Offenders refine their modus operandi as they learn from the mistakes that lead to their arrests. Thus, offenders are constantly reshaping their modus operandi’s to meet the demands of their crime (2).
The violent and repetitive offender can often exhibit another behavior known as the signature aspect or “calling card”. This criminal behavior is usually an imperative part of the offender’s behavior and tends to go beyond the actions necessary to commit the crime. Violent crimes are often brought to surface by the fantasies of offenders. When these crimes are eventually acted out, some aspect of each crime can demonstrate a unique, personal expression or ritual based on these fantasies (2). Purely committing the crimes does not satisfy the need of the offender, and this insufficiency compels them to go beyond just the offense of murder or what it may be, and perform a ritual. The “calling card” is when the offender leaves the ritual display at the crime scene. For example, the signature of many rapists is done by engaging in acts of manipulation or domination during the physical, verbal, or sexual phase of the assault. Vulgar and abusive language or preparation of a script for the victim to repeat represents a verbal signature. An example of sexual signature behavior would involve an offender who repeatedly engages in a specific order of sexual activity with different victims. Unlike the modus operandi, the signature aspect remains a constant and enduring part of each offender. The signature aspect may evolve, but will always retain the elements of the original scene. The modus operandi will always play an important role in linking cases. However, the modus operandi should not be the only criteria used to connect crimes, especially with repeat offenders who alter their modus operandi. Signature aspect should receive greater consideration than the modus operandi due to the fact that the signature aspect will never change and always have the same original theme as is displayed in the initial crime committed by the offender (3).
When approaching a crime scene investigators should always look for behavioral clues left by the offender (6). Investigators may analyze crime scenes and uncover facts that may baffle them. These details may contain such unique peculiarities that serve no purpose in the action of the crime and obscure the underlying motive of the crime. Confusion caused by these seemingly useless clues may be the cause of a crime scene behavior called staging. Staging occurs when someone purposely alters a crime scene prior to the arrival of the police. This takes place for two reasons—to veer investigators away from the most logical suspect, or to protect the victim or the victim’s family. Most offenders with this type of behaviors do not just happen to stumble upon the victim walking down the street, but always have some kind of relationship or association with the victim. When in contact with law enforcement, this person will attempt to steer the investigation away from himself, usually by being overly cooperative or overly distraught. Investigators should never eliminate a suspect who displays such a distinctive behavior. When staging is used to protect the victim or the victim’s family, it occurs for the most part in rape-murder cases or autoerotic fatalities. Usually a family member or whoever finds the body will perform this type of staging. The perpetrators of the crime may leave the bodies in such degrading positions; those who find the body may attempt to restore some dignity for the victim. Essentially, these people are trying to prevent future shock that may be brought about the position, dress, or condition of the victim. For both types of staging, investigators need to obtain an accurate description of the body’s condition and position when found and determine exactly what did the person who found the body do to alter the crime scene. At some crime scenes, the investigator needs to be able to differentiate between whether the scene is truly disorganized or if the offender staged the scene. This determination helps to direct the analysis of the underlying motive, and also helps shape the offender profile. Recognition of staging can be difficult, therefore investigators must examine all aspects of the scene if they suspect it has been staged (7).
Although criminal profiling is an incredibly detailed process, it is a key factor in determining the offender in a crime. Criminal profiling is an effective way to identify and find a criminal. Profiling is not used in all cases; it is most commonly used in cases of extremely violent homicide, rape, potential serial killings, and potential serial rapes. By using such behavioral patterns as staging, signature, and modus operandi, a profiler can narrow the search for an offender greatly. Even though there are many generalities in a profile, profilers are able to get more specific by looking at either the crime scene or photographs of the crime scene (Jones 1). When approaching a crime scene with the awareness of the factors used by profilers (signature, staging, modus operandi), investigators can improve their ability to read the story of each violent crime scene. By doing so, they will become more knowledgeable and better equipped to apprehend the violent crime offender. Without criminal profiling, investigators would be working with much less information, and their chances of catching offenders would be lessened greatly. Profiling is used to apprehend the most dangerous criminals, the ones who leave tiny little trip-ups, indecipherable clues, and psychological mind games.