Tag Archives: homicide

“This guy got really mad, and he didn’t know how to control himself. People think I helped him.” “Did you?”

Kat Chandler’s short film, “Black Metal,” is getting its big break at the Sundance Film Festival this month. In just a few minutes, the film explores a gruesome murder loosely tied to the music of a heavy-metal band. Only this time, it looks at the situation from the perspective of the musician whose work is linked to the killing. It’s a sensitive, emotional take on the topic, and doesn’t answer very many questions, leaving the viewer to reflect on whether this common scapegoat is really part of the problem.

Given my perspective on the topic, I have mixed feelings about Chandler’s film. On the one hand, I like the suggestion that this musician is baffled and upset by the blame, and the fact that the film mostly makes that blame appear misplaced. I also like the fact that it doesn’t overtly preach an answer; being too heavy-handed would be less effective. But I wonder whether this film is going to change the mind of someone who is already convinced that extreme music directly encourages its listeners to commit violence. I hope so, but part of me doubts it.

Corey Mitchell, a true-crime writer and metalhead who consulted on the film, said this on Invisible Oranges:

Just to be clear, I would not have taken the gig if Kat’s intention was to declare metal responsible for violent crimes.

What do you think the film says? And what do you think of the way in which it says it?

Expert: Youth violence is complex, media doesn’t cause violence, reporting on it is tough

A mural in Chicago’s Logan Square. Photo by Flickr user Zol87.

This morning, Poynter.org hosted a chat with Carl Bell, acting director of the Institute for Juvenile Research and a professor in the University of Illinois’ Department of Psychiatry and in the School of Public Health, on how journalists can do better when covering youth violence. The chat was prompted by recent coverage of a wave of youth-involved shootings in Chicago.

Most of the time, Backward Messages focuses on all the things that don’t cause youth violence, even though various sources have claimed they do. Things like violent video games, the occult, and heavy-metal music. I also like to look at the ways reporters get off track when reporting on youth crime — and the ways that misreporting leads us to look for the wrong causes.

So when I heard Bell was co-hosting the chat with Poynter.org managing editor Mallary Tenore today, I jumped in to listen, and to ask questions. Here are some of the highlights:

Carl Bell: I have been studying violence since 1976 and I have learned there are several types of violence – predatory violence, interpersonal altercation violence, gang related violence, etc. There is also mob violence, hate crime violence, violence by mentally ill, systemic violence, etc.

Mallary Tenore: As you’ve studied these various types of violence, what have you noticed about journalists’ coverage of them?

Carl Bell: It has been my experience that journalist regularly do not differentiate these types of violence very well and they mostly get portrayed as predatory violence.

Mallary Tenore: That’s interesting … why do you think that is?

Carl Bell: I think that people are often confused with complexity. … I think journalists have a difficult time. They have to report on complex issues, but keep them simple and they have to get past the editor.

Mallary Tenore: Yes, time can definitely a factor.

Carl Bell: Unfortunately, much that is published or reported on has to have a great hook, i.e. something that appeals to the flight, fight, or freeze response in the brain, not the thinking, discernment, wise part of the brain. So, there is a lot of distortion in the media.

Beth Winegarner: Carl, on the topic of mass murder/school shootings, why do you think reporters so often make reference to a youth’s music tastes or video-game habits when describing youth perpetrators of mass violence?

Carl Bell: There are so many ideas that people have for the causes of violence. When we did the Surgeon General’s report on youth violence we learned, based on science, that many of the things we think cause violence do not cause violence at all.

Beth Winegarner: That’s an interesting response, since many people still refer to the Surgeon General’s report. What things mentioned in it don’t cause violence after all?

Carl Bell: The reality is that risk factors are not predictive factors, due to protective factors. So, a lot of kids want violent videos or play violent video games, but the homicide rates are lower than the suicide rates (both are rare), so things protect kids.

To read the full chat, see the Poynter.org and click at the bottom to read the transcript.

While we focus on “Satanic” angle, killer walks free

Was Arlis Perry killed in 1974 by a Satanic cult in Stanford University’s Memorial Church? Some still think so. Photo by Flickr user daviduweb.

Rumors of murderous Satanic cults always make for a compelling scary story, even if they can’t be proven. Maybe that’s why the Great Plains Examiner has a new article today about Arlis Perry, who was killed almost 40 years ago in a church at Stanford University. Her murder remains unsolved, which always stokes the fires of the imagination.

Scant details have led people to pursue the “Satanic cult” theory:

An autopsy later revealed that Arlis Perry was killed by a blow from an ice pick punched just behind her ear. The way she was laying in the chapel led detectives to believe it was a ritualistic killing.

“The way she was laying” is pretty vague, but there are speculative sketches online, likening Perry’s position to the shake of the unicursal hexagram — which, by the way, isn’t Satanic; in fact, it’s used to protect against evil.

Also? The ice pick isn’t a particularly “Satanic” tool.

Reading through the history of the case, it’s a pretty big mental stretch to call some of the players — if, indeed, they were players — “Satanic.” Speculation in this California murder suggests it could have been the work of David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz, or someone else involved with the Process Church, or there’s even a hint that the Holy Order of MANS was involved somehow. There were also rumors that Perry had attempted to convert some members of a North Dakota Satanic cult to Christianity… and this is why one of them tailed her to California and killed her?

I’m not familiar with any cases committed by Berkowitz in California — not to mention that he recanted most of his “Satanic” claims after he was jailed. The Process Church is only associated with Satan because he’s part of their beliefs — but that doesn’t mean they’re killers. And despite what it says in the Great Plains Examiner story, the HOOM folks didn’t wear upside-down crosses; they were a humble order working with Christian ideas. That detail alone makes me question the validity of the rest of the reporting — and it should make other readers doubt it, too.

Perry had a fight with her new husband the night she died. After the fight, she walked to Stanford, where she prayed in the church and was found dead a few hours later. Apparently later DNA analysis failed to yield a suspect. I have to assume that her husband was investigated — after all, 44 percent of female homicide victims in New York State, to take a random example, were killed by their partners. Still, it was more than likely the killer was someone she knew — and someone local.

The problem with such coverage — despite the fact that it’s speculative, filled with errors, and not very trustworthy — is that it leads readers to think in a particular way about a crime. Readers are potential witnesses; do they remember something? Did they see something suspicious that might be related to the crime? If they’re led to believe a certain context for Perry’s death, they might discount something they saw if it doesn’t fit that context. There’s a reason juries are selected, in part, based on how “tainted” they are by news reports — because such coverage can introduce a bias that can lead the wrong person to be convicted of a crime.

As long as people think a Satanic cult killed her — and there’s no evidence this Satanic cult exists outside people’s imaginations — her killer will remain free.

Fear leads to anger — and goth-bashing

Thirteen-year-old Casey-Lyanne Kearney was stabbed to death. Her accused killer has been called a “goth.” Not likely.

On Valentine’s Day, Casey-Lynne Kearney was crossing Elmfield Park in Doncaster, England when a woman allegedly stabbed her and left her to die.

Police, who called the assault random and isolated, arrested 26-year-old Hannah Bonser, a Doncaster resident, for Kearney’s murder and and for possession of two knives. Her trial is scheduled to begin July 2.

Even before Bonser appeared in court to defend herself, neighbors described her to the UK’s sensationalism-prone Sun as a goth:

… neighbours in Doncaster described her as having the look of “a Goth” — sporting dark hair and dark-rimmed glasses. She was said to be “addicted” to computer games.

One resident, who asked not to be identified, said: “The police were round here and they took some boxes of stuff from her flat. She was like a rocker, gothic type. She was very quiet.”

Talking to the neighbors is one of the oldest tricks in the reporter’s book. There are a variety of good reasons for this practice, but what neighbors say must always be taken with a grain of salt — these days, many people don’t know their neighbors particularly well, or may even have conflicts with them that drive them to say things they shouldn’t.

Not only are those descriptions very vague and patched-together, they don’t really describe an actual goth. (And, you can see in the court link, Bonser doesn’t look particularly goth.) Most of the time, it takes more than dark hair and “dark-rimmed glasses” to identify a goth. (Also, nice how the slipped in the “video games” angle too, eh?”)

More than that, though, these flimsy descriptions reinforce the false idea that goths are a remotely violent group. This idea, popularized after the Columbine High School killings in Colorado in 1999 (committed by two young men who were also falsely identified as goths), has been tough to shake. People outside the goth culture see the black hair, theatrical makeup and clothing, piercings and studs, and assume their fear of such an off-putting appearance must mean goths are aggressive. In fact, the most aggressive thing about goths is probably their appearance. Religioustolerance.org notes, “Goths tend to be non-violent, pacifistic, passive, and tolerant.”

Often to a fault. In fact, goths are much more often the victims of violence, as in the cases of Sophie Lancaster and Melody McDowell, both of whom were coincidentally assaulted in England.

In some ways, the comments made by Bonser’s neighbors constitute another kind of attack on goths — and reveal the layers of misunderstanding and discomfort that exist against them in modern society.

When someone on UK Yahoo Answers asked why goths are so stigmatized, another responded:

Unfortunately a lot of people (especially those who live in small towns & don’t have a lot of life experience, or even those of a low level of intelligence) will always feel threatened by something that is outside their own experience and/or they do not understand.

Or, to quote a certain wise green muppet, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

When will we stop being so afraid of one another?

Occupy, violent video games didn’t kill couple

Susan Poff and Robert Kamin were murdered in Oakland, California. Police say their adopted teenage son confessed to the crime.

When an Oakland couple, involved in helping low-income communities, were found strangled and stuffed into the back of their PT Cruiser, police didn’t immediately suspect their 15-year-old adopted son.

However, after spending some time at the home, the teen — whose name is not being released — admitted to the officers that he killed Susan Poff and Robert Kamin. There doesn’t seem to be any clear motive in the attack. Can there be, when the child is 15 and has a good relationship with his parents, according to all who knew them?

Still, the press always looks for an explanation. That’s what reporters do. They try to answer: Who? What? Where? When? Why?

That may explain why one reporter tossed this line into a San Francisco Chronicle article Monday:

“The boy’s infatuation with violent video games was starting to give his uncle pause.”

Wait a minute here.

To back up, Poff and Kamin’s co-workers said the couple was recently having some arguments with their son about the amount of time he was spending at the Occupy Oakland encampment. However, those arguments didn’t sound like the fodder for homicide, they said.

So if those disagreements weren’t enough to fuel the killings, violent video games might have been?

According to the boy’s uncle?

Here’s a boy who, by outside appearances, was doing exactly what teens need to do: he was going to school, he was engaging in hobbies (Occupy Oakland, video games, karate — where he’d obtained his black belt), he had attentive parents.

What we don’t know — what nobody is talking about — is the boy’s birth parents, and what legacy of issues he may have, either due to genetics or to early abandonment. It’s true that plenty of kids overcome mental-health issues or psychological trauma, and don’t kill anyone. But for those kids who do kill, these can be primary factors.

We know video games save lives. We know they don’t make kids aggressive.

So why did the reporter mention it?

Who led child-rapist and killer Joshua Komisarjevsky astray? It wasn’t Satan.

Would Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughters be alive if Joshua Komisarjevsky had been parented differently? Probably.

If you’ve heard of Joshua Komisarjevsky, chances are good it’s because he was recently convicted of killing Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughters, Michaela, 11, and Hayley, 17, in Cheshire, Connecticut, in 2007. He awaits a sentence of either life in prison or the death penalty for the crimes, which he committed with accomplice Steven Hayes. In addition to taking their lives and then setting the bodies on fire, Komisarjevsky also raped Michaela.

Komisarjevsky’s life story is a case study in how fears of Satanism and the occult can get in the way of seeking proper treatment for an obviously ill teenager. His parents and others had many chances to intervene, to save not only Komisarjevsky’s life but the lives of Hawke-Petit and her daughters.

The 31-year-old was adopted when he was 2 weeks old. Early photos show him with his mother, Jude, who is delighted by the boy in her lap. Later on, the Komisarjevskys took in foster children, and one of them — a 15-year-old named Scott — abused the other kids, including 5-year-old Joshua. Later on, Joshua turned this abuse on his sister, which his parents refused to report to the police.

By the time Joshua was in his teens, his psychological state was beginning to break down. He developed a close friendship with a man in his church. Also during this time, Joshua allegedly joined a “Satanic cult.” The church friend helped “rescue” him from a ritual held at someone’s home, but shortly afterward, Joshua said he began hearing voices and suffering night terrors. But neither his family nor his church friends sought outside help:

But the cult continued to have a negative effect on Komisarjevsky, according to testimony Thursday by Eric Perry, a staff supervisor at a Christian boys’ home called the Fold in Vermont in 1996.

Perry’s two weekly reports on Komisarjevsky were shown on the courtroom screen. “Having trouble sleeping,” Perry wrote. “He hears voices saying, ‘Kill yourself.’ He is seeing objects in his room that he believes are related to his prior inclusion in Satanic cults.”

Perry also wrote that prayer and reassurance Komisarjevsky was loved by God and the staff at the Fold “seems to be the only solution to his night terrors.”

Even if Joshua had been part of a Satanic group — and it’s not clear to me what was going on here — there’s no reason that such belonging would trigger a mental-health breakdown. Just like any religious organization, Satanism attracts a variety of people for a variety of reasons, including those with mental-health issues. It’s neither a cause or a cure for those issues.

As a teen, he kept bomb-making supplies in his room as well as razor blades, the latter for a planned suicide attempt.

Here is a boy who is obviously crying out for help. But his support network believed, for whatever reason, that prayer and faith were the answers to his problems. Obviously, they weren’t.

I’m not here to blame any particular faith on what happened to Komisarjevsky — or particularly to his victims. I think the problem lies with the type of people his parents were, not the faith or denomination they belonged to. I don’t think it’s a matter of whether or not they loved Joshua and his adopted/foster siblings. They had the heart to take these kids in. Beyond that, we know very little. What we do know is that Joshua was very sick, and we know that without treatment, this kind of sickness does not get better.

What happened to Hawke-Petit and her daughters was entirely preventable. It could have been prevented by Joshua Komisarjevsky’s parents, by his church elders, by others in his life. They made the wrong choices. Ultimately, the actions were Joshua’s — and for that reason he’s the right person to stand trial — but I doubt he would have committed these crimes without everything that came before.