The First Case of Murder: Forensic vs. Clinical Psychological Approaches

At an early stage in the development of the science of homicide, the study of cases is a necessary first step. But if the study of murder is the study of cases, what case is best to begin with? Should we first attempt to analyze a complex case of sexual homicide with multiple victims or would a more appropriate starting point be a “typical” case of murder? In fact, the first reported murder—the biblical Cain-Abel murder—is instructive in this regard, since it contains most of the elements of the typical contemporary homicide. Since sexual murder is a subtype of homicide, it is impossible to fully understand the former without an understanding of the latter. In addition, the Cain-Abel murder illustrates the significant distinctions between the forensic and clinical psychological approaches used by present- day practitioners when they are asked to evaluate a homicide, a distinction that will be covered more thoroughly in Chapter 2.

And the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering.

But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell.

And the Lord said unto Cain, Why art thou wroth? and why is thy countenance fallen?

And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.

And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: am I my brother’s keeper?

Genesis 4: 4-9

Let us assume that the body of Abel is discovered by a passerby who then calls the local police. At this point, the offender is unknown, and an investigation begins. Since this is his first homicide, and the detective has no experience in such matters, he contacts two professionals—a clinical and a forensic psychologist—who deal with human behavior. Even though they also have no experience with homicide, the detective hopes that they can provide some direction to the investigation.

At a meeting, the detective explains the facts of the case to both psychologists. He reports that the deceased has a brother named Cain, but the detective quickly dismisses Cain as a possible suspect because “brothers love one another; it could never be a family member.” Both psychologists, however, remark that in their experience, contrary to popular belief and to the impression that most people would like to project, family members often do not love one another. In fact, both psychologists explain, it is quite common for a family member to feel deep jealousy, resentment, anger, and hatred toward another family member. The detective then decides to call in Cain for questioning, and Cain quickly confesses. At this point, the approaches taken by the forensic and the clinical psychologist diverge.

The clinical psychologist meets with Cain in order to learn as much as he can about him. He approaches the task from the traditional perspective of clinical psychology (not different from the approach used in general psychiatry). In the clinical psychological (or psychiatric) approach, the mental health professional conducts an evaluation of the patient, arrives at a diagnosis, and develops a treatment plan based on the diagnosis. Thus, the clinical psychologist interviews Cain, takes his (background) history, asks him to explain the homicide, administers a battery of psychological tests, and arrives at a diagnosis.

The clinical psychologist concludes that Cain—primarily since he seemed to have acted impulsively—must have an impulse control disorder. As a result of his testing and observations, he also determines that Cain has a borderline personality disorder, along with low self-esteem. The clinical psychologist entertains the possibility that Cain may also have a bipolar disorder (somewhat of a diagnostic fad that leads to overdiagnosis) but reserves judgment on this diagnosis for now. Thus, the clinical psychological (or psychiatric) approach to evaluating a homicidal defendant is basically the practice of clinical psychology (or general psychiatry) in a legal context. The case is approached in the same manner as the mental health professional would approach a patient in a hospital, a mental health center, or a private office setting. There is a search for a diagnosis to explain behavior.

The forensic psychologist approaches the Cain-Abel murder case from a distinctly different perspective. He does not want to interview Cain immediately as the clinical psychologist did; instead, he asks for a detailed description of the criminal act itself, as found in the police reports, autopsy report, witness statements, and crime scene findings. What the offender actually did—not just what he said he did—is of primary concern to the forensic psychologist; it is of much more concern, at this point, than his diagnosis. The forensic psychologist believes that if one wants to understand the mind of the criminal, one must first study his crimes. After carefully studying the Cain-Abel homicide, he arrives at a number of findings:

  • • Cain was angry and jealous just prior to the murder; apparently God favored Abel’s offering more than his.
  • • The killer was the victim’s brother and, therefore, had a close relationship with him.
  • • There was an apparent swiftness to the act. The Bible does not say exactly what transpired, except that “Cain rose up,” implying that it was an explosive attack.
  • • The method of killing was direct violence. The Bible indicates that Cain “rose up and slew him,” suggesting that the violent act was not only sudden but also direct and effective.
  • • The location of the homicide was close to home base. In the biblical premodern society, people spent time in open spaces, or “in the field,” as opposed to contemporary places of congregation, such as homes or taverns.
  • • There was a conversation prior to the murder, perhaps an argument. The Bible reports that “Cain talked with Abel,” but it does not say exactly what they spoke about. An angry dispute, however, seems likely, given Cain’s apparent jealousy and discontent.
  • • The offender lied when confronted with the offense. The Lord asked Cain where Abel was, and he responded, “I know not.”
  • • The question of the victim’s possible role in the homicide is raised (Wolfgang, 1969). Did Abel play any part in bringing about his death, or was he just a totally passive victim of circumstances?

Each professional submits a report. The clinical psychologist begins with a self-report description of the homicide as recounted by Cain. It seems that Cain was unable to recall a lot of details. He did, however, manage to give several versions of what occurred, all at variance from a statement he gave to the police when arrested—a statement which he now claims was forced. Cain first told the clinical psychologist that he was provoked; next, that Abel’s death was an accident; and finally that he was protecting himself from Abel, who actually threatened him. The forensic psychologist has not yet interviewed Cain, so he writes an initial report detailing the eight points he learned from the study of the homicide itself.

The following month, another person is found dead, a victim of an apparent murder. The same detective calls on the clinical and forensic psychologists for assistance in solving the crime. All three professionals now have had some experience in homicide. The clinical psychologist, relying on his evaluation of Cain, says to the detective, “Look for an individual with a borderline personality, low self-esteem, and an impulse control disorder.” The forensic psychologist, relying on what he learned from his study of the homicide itself, tells the detective that he should look for a family member or someone who had a close relationship with the victim. He predicts that the murder was probably sudden, perhaps triggered by jealousy or anger; the offender and the victim may have had an argument just before the murder. It is likely that the killing was the result of a direct assault and took place close to where victim and offender typically congregate. He continues that the offender may not be truthful once he realizes he is a suspect. The forensic psychologist is not yet certain what role, if any, the victim may have played.

The clinical psychological approach to the homicide was of little help to law enforcement in this case. The suggestion that the murderer is someone with a borderline personality, low self-esteem, and has an impulse control disorder does not enable the detective to narrow the field of possible suspects, nor does it explain what occurred. On the other hand, the suggestion that he should look for a family member or close associate who was jealous of, or arguing with, the deceased is of practical help to the detective. And examining exactly what transpired, utilizing information from multiple credible sources provides a more solid foundation for drawing conclusions about the offender’s state of mind than simply relying on the accused person’s version(s) of what occurred.

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