There are many theories about why people commit crimes. There are biological theories, psychological theories, and sociological theories. Early biological theories were discredited for various reasons but modern biological theories based upon advanced knowledge about how the nervous system works, cognitive development, and the way these things cause a person to react to their environmental influences are more accepted today than earlier biological theories were. Soft determinism theories hypothesize that biological factors may predispose a person towards certain behaviors, but psychological and social factors may play a role in whether the person engages in criminal behaviors (Akers, 2012).
Most children with homicidal tendencies are abused or suffered some sort of trauma. In Children Who Kill, Dr. Susan Bailey (1996/1999/2002) wrote that “90% of cases reaching a diagnostic criteria for sadistic personality disorder had childhoods characterized by a history of emotional abuse, one or both parental figures being repeatedly hostile, demeaning or neglecting.” Bailey reports another high percentage are physically abused and close to half have experienced loss, death, or parental abandonment.” (p.29).
In addition to the possibility that child neglect/abuse and/or trauma contribute to psychological causes of extreme juvenile killing, another possibility is sociological. There is no doubt that in the years where we have seen an increase in shootings there has been an increase in exposure to violence in the media and video games. Children are impressionable and perhaps we should look question the wisdom of letting children and teens play a game such as Grand Theft Auto where the goal of the game is to commit crimes in a virtual setting, and consider that this might influence their behavior as well, as Albert Bandura’s research in developing Social Learning theory has indicated (see Sincero, n.d.).
On May 25, 1957, Mary Bell was born. Her mother was a prostitute who immediately rejected Mary reportedly stating, “Get that thing away from me.” (Sereny, 1996/1999/2002). According to Sereny, the coldness and lack of parental support was apparent at the trial. In 1968, the day before Mary’s 11th birthday, Mary strangled four-year-old Martin Brown in an abandoned house in Newcastle, England where she lived. Notes were left at a local abandoned about the crime by Mary and her neighbor Norma Bell (not related) aged 13 (Child Criminals, 2003).
On July 31, 1968 Mary and Norma and Mary took part in a second killing for which Norma was acquitted and Mary was convicted of manslaughter. It was again by strangulation. The victim was three-year-old Brian Howe. His body was mutilated as well. Mary was sent to a detention center for life, but did not serve her entire life, she was released in 1980. (Sereny, 1996/1999/2002).
In 1998, after Mary was released from detention, Sereny published a book about Mary’s case in which Mary alleged that her mother, who specialized in sado-masochism, had tried to kill her when she was growing up on several occasions and that men who visited her house had sexually abused her. This was controversial because Mary was reportedly paid by Serena to tell her story (Child Killer Bell, 1998). Bell also alleged that the abuse continued in the facility she was sent to, where she was the only female, which prompted an inquiry (Harding & Bowcott, 1998). Due to hounding by the tabloids, Bell was granted lifetime anonymity and went into seclusion with her teen-aged daughter in 2003 (Gibb, 2003). It seems that Mary Bell has successfully been rehabilitated.
On January 29, 1979, 16-year-old Brenda Spencer opened fire on Grover Cleveland Elementary School across the street from her house in San Carlos, California perpetrating the first school shooting in United States History and killing the school principal and the school custodian and wounding eight others. Her explanation for the tragic actions was “I don’t like Mondays, this livens up the day.” (Boysen, 2013).
Brenda was the youngest child of Wallace and Dot Spencer who divorced in 1972 with custody of the three children being granted to the emotionally distant Wallace. Brenda reportedly was a bright and happy child until her parents divorced at which time she became withdrawn, sullen and troubled. She started hanging out with other troubled youth and obsessed with the rock star Alice Cooper. She pled guilty to the shooting and was sentenced to 25 to life with the possibility of parole after 25 years (Boysen 2013).
Brenda reported being abused by her father, but has a reputation for fabricating stories and there are many contradictions in her allegations (Langman, 2016). It may be that she was abused, or it may be that she is lying to try to get released from prison. In my opinion, Brenda Spencer is likely a true psychopathic personality and probably still a danger to society. She comes up before the parole board for reconsideration again in 2019.
On February 2, 1996 14-year-old Barry Loukaitis shot and killed his algebra teacher and two students at Moses Lake Middle School in Moses Lake, Washington. He held his classmates hostage for over an hour when a coach subdued him and he was taken into custody.
Barry, born February 26, 1981 was a troubled teen with a diagnosis of ADHD and depression. Reportedly, depression was a diagnosis in his family on both sides for several generations. His mother had reportedly told Barry about her own plans for suicide prior to the killings (Andersen, 1997). He says he was influenced by the Pearl Jam song Jeremy. The music video of the boy coming to school with no shirt on and leaving his classmates splattered with blood, according to Barry’s attorney pushed Barry over the edge (Ryan, 1997). Most likely Barry has a mental illness that affected his cognitive functioning and behavior and a dysfunctional family life that contributed to his crime. He may have been delusional and psychotic.
Barry Loukaitis was found guilty of murder and sentenced to two life sentences plus 205 years. In 2012 the supreme court ruled that sentencing children who were under 18 when they committed their crimes is cruel and unusual punishment (Savage, 2012). This gave Loukaitis an opportunity for resentencing and the possibility of being paroled in the future.
There are many reasons why people commit crimes. Each case is unique. Mary Bell may have been rehabilitated, there may be no hope for Brenda Spencer, and Barry Loukatis may be helped with medication and therapy. We should consider that individual cases have different causes and there is not just one right answer. However, we should consider the differences in individuals, especially when making sentencing decisions for the youngest members of our society when they commit the most unthinkable crimes.
- Akers, R.L. (2012) Criminological theories. New York, NY. London. Routeledge.
- Andersen, P. (1997). Loukatis’ mother says she told son of plan to kill herself. Seattle Times. Associated Press.
- Bailey, S. (1996/1999/2002). Sadistic Violence and Acts Committed by Children and Young People. In P. Cavadino, Children Who Kill. (pp. 25-37). London. Waterside Press.
- Boysen, M. (2013 Nov. 3). I don’t like Mondays. New York Daily News.
Child criminals (2003). Ebsco Publishing.
- Child killer Bell, “I was abused”. (1998). BBC News. Retrieved from: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk/85396.stm.
- Gibb F. (2003, May 5). Child killer Bell granted anonymity for life. The Times (London).
- Harding L. & Bowcott O. (1998). Bell: inquiry at secure unit. The Guardian (London).
- Langman, P. (2016). Brenda Spencer: Sorting out the contradictions. Retrieved from: https://schoolshooters.info/sites/default/files/spencer_contradictions_1.0.pdf
- Ryan, J. (1997 Sept. 1997). Accused teen killer deploys Pearl Jam defense. Enews. Retrieved from: http://www.eonline.com/news/35170/accused-teen-killer-deploys-pearl-jam-defense.
- Savage, D. (2012, June 25). Supreme Court rules mandatory juvenile life without parole cruel and unusual. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from: http://articles.latimes.com/2012/jun/25/news/la-pn-supreme-court-rules-juvenile-life-without-parole-cruel-and-unusual-20120625
- Sereny, G. (1996/1999/2002). Children Who Kill. In P. Cavadino, Children Who Kill (pp. 20-24). London. Waterside Press.
- Sincero, S.M. (n.d.). What is social learning theory. Retrieved from: https://explorable.com/social-learning-theory