Treatment and Rehabilitation of Serial Killers after Crime


The morbid fascination the public holds for serial killers is a long running one. The bizarre and often gruesome nature of their crimes have often been attributed to be the work of mad men. This popular belief has led to rise of insanity as a criminal defense. There are also questions regarding the viability of rehabilitation and treatment of serial killers diagnosed with Anti-Social Personality Disorders such as psychopaths and sociopaths. Does being a psychopath automatically make a person a violent killer? Studies show that most killers who do use this defense often prove to be sane people with exceptional skills at manipulation and deception.

At the moment, there is no proven measure of the effectiveness of psychiatric treatment and rehabilitation for serial killers in prison.

Treatment and Rehabilitation of Serial Killers in Prison

Serial killers and the violence of the murders they commit have always been phenomena that have never failed to arouse both morbid curiosity and horror in people.

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Too often the bizarre and exceptional violence included in their crimes have been judged to either be the work of a madman or the product of pure evil. These perceptions have become so popular that it is not extraordinary for serial killers to enter in a plea of insanity in their defense. What causes such “insanity” is a question that has long challenged psychiatrists and criminal psychologists alike. The question however is, are they really insane? Is there hope for correction and rehabilitation once they have been convicted?

The term “serial killer” was coined in the mid-70’s by Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) special agent Robert Ressler (Seltzer, 1993, p.

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93). Before this, people who have killed several people were simply called “mass murderers.” Serial killers however, were looked at as different breed of murderers as they killed repeatedly to the point of addiction and usually picked their victims at random.

Killings are done in a “series,” hence the term “serial.” This series can often extend through many years with occasional periods of dormancy. The motives revolved around sex, financial gain, thrill seeking, fulfillment of a perceived “mission” or ideal, and the driving need to exercise power and control (Prins, 2005, p. 195).

In his book “Serial Murder: An Elusive Phenomenon” (1990) Steven Egger states that most serial killers have a “desire to have power over his victims”(Egger, 1990,p.4). Victims are viewed as nothing and insignificant and are often unable to defend themselves due to their occupation (prostitutes), age (children and elderly women), gender (women and homosexuals) and social status (migrant workers, homeless people).

For some time there was a very influential stereotype of a serial killer which described them typically as “white male in his thirties or forties a sexually motivated murderer who preyed on either men or women depending on his sexual orientation.” (Jenkins, 1994, p. 21) While this type of profile fitted Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy perfectly, the emergence of other serial killers that did not fit the profile soon dispelled this stereotype. (p.22)

It is not at all easy to detect serial killers according to Helen Morrison, author of the book “My Life Among The Serial Killers” (2004). These people often have above-average intelligence, are capable of maintaining relationships and even get married, and usually are community-oriented, getting involved with charity work and acting the genial, friendly neighbor (“Peering into the Minds of Serial Killers; REVIEW,” 2004, p. 58). They can also possess considerable charm that could be key in getting their victim’s defenses down.

Were they naturally born evil? Are they a case for psychiatrists? Or were they just influenced and turned into what they have become by circumstances they experienced in their lives? While research in genetics do reveal that “certain strands of DNA predispose individuals to alcoholism and other self-destructive behaviors, “(Guldmann, 2006) there is still a common belief that pre-disposition may be overruled by non-biological factors present in an individual’s environment such as education, moral orientation and free will. (Guldmann, 2006)

Most people believe that people capable of committing murder and other such heinous crimes must simply be “out of their minds.” While the exact nature of the mental impairment or illness is seldom asked, the viciousness and degree of bizarreness of the way murder was done were taken as evidence of the murderer’s “madness” (Egger, 1990, p. 73)

Psychology says that certain behavioral disorders may be caused by factors in an individual’s environment (Levy & Orlans, 2004). Maltreatment and neglect experienced in childhood, for instance, may lead to the formation of psychosocial problems such as aggression towards one’s self and others. Such experience may also affect a person’s ability to control emotions and subsequent actions. (Lowenthal, 1999)

Insanity as a defense in most serial killer cases is not uncommon, nor is it such a hard sell for most lay persons. After all, would any sane person consciously mutilate and kill their victims in the way serial killers do?

Psychology classifies serial killers under two categories: the psychopaths and the sociopaths. Both fall under the adult anti-social personality disorders (Giannangelo, 1996, p. 7). While these two terms are often interchanged, there are differences in the way people suffering from the aforementioned disorders deal with society and commit their crimes.

Antisocial personality disorders may be caused by a variety of factors. These include possible biological pre-dispositions, childhood trauma and abuse, neurological anomalies, and heredity. What is common among those suffering from anti-social disorders is that whatever the cause, there is a great feeling of inadequacy and self-doubt. (p. 8)

Psychopaths possess a combination of extreme narcissism and “extended chronic antisocial behavior.” Their personal histories often show abuse and maltreatment that affected and destroyed their sense of self. In killing, they get to exert their dominance over their victims and thus are able to create for themselves a sense of being. (p. 9) Sociopaths on the other hand, often exhibit extreme impulsiveness, lack of organization and irresponsibility. They are selfish social misfits and usually indifferent to social norms and rights of others. Like psychopaths, they are highly aggressive, remorseless and compulsive liars. They can often start relationships but have difficulty maintaining them. They exhibit behaviors that are in variance with those acceptable in general society. Frustration is something they cannot tolerate and the likelihood of their learning from punishment or experience is positively nil. (Simon, 1996, p. 26)

The killer dumped most of his victims who were mostly prostitutes and runaways who turned to working the streets for a living into the Washington state’s Green River hence the moniker. For almost twenty years, the special task force formed by the King County police focusing on solving the Green River murders labored under a mountain of information and leads received from an already panicked state.

Due to his notoriety and fears of being harmed by the other inmates, Ridgway is serving out his sentence at the Walla Walla Intensive Management Unit (IMU) (Sullivan, 2007) Since his incarceration, Ridgway has been described as a “typical psychopath” who murdered for the thrill and gratification he received from it. Ridgway confessed that the reason he picked mostly prostitutes as his victims was that he hated them and didn’t want to pay for sex. He also liked the idea that their absence would not be noticed right away therefore allowing him to pick up and kill as many as he wanted without getting caught (Bell).

There are some issues however with regard to whether or not he may be sentenced to the death penalty in other jurisdictions as some of the victims were possibly killed and buried in other areas outside of King County. There are also questions as to why a sane man who has committed 48 pre-meditated murders should be able to escape capital punishment through a plea bargain (Bell).

Famed true crime author Ann Rule who also wrote a book on the Green River murders entitled “Green River, Running Red” shares her horror at having been mentioned by Ridgway during police interrogations.  “I heard a popular Northwest true-crime author was going to write a book about me,” Ridgeway is quoted to have said. “I want to make the best impression possible.: (Rule, 2005, p.129)

“Son of Sam” David Berkowitz

The 1970’s was known to be the “summer of Sam.” Arrested and imprisoned for murdering six people and wounding several others, Berkowitz earned the moniker ‘Son of Sam” with his series of letters to Yonkers and New York Police that were signed “Son of Sam.”  Upon his arrest in 1977, Berkowitz politely and frankly admitted to the murders he was charged with even providing details that only the killer would know to the interrogating officer According to Berkowitz, it was a “demon dog” that chose and commanded him to kill his victims (Bardsley).

Robert Ressler, a veteran FBI investigator and key player in the Ted Bundy case, conducted an interview with Berkowitz in 1979. Openly telling Berkowitz that he did not buy the “demon dog” story for one bit, Ressler was able to get Berkowitz to admit that he came up with the “Son of Sam” and “demon dog” story as preparatory for an insanity defense.

He further told Ressler that “stalking women was a nightly adventure for him” and that he usually went back to the scenes of earlier murders he committed to re-live the experience. Ressler observed that Berkowitz found excitement and gratification in the “proofs” of his crimes such as police chalkmarks and the funerals held for his victims. Berkowitz also freely admitted that he used to hang around police stations and reveled in people talking about his crimes (Bardsley). Serving his time at the Sullivan Correctional Facility in Fallsburg, New York, Berkowitz was initially considered a disciplinary problem until he professed conversion to Christianity and eventually became a “model prisoner.” He has managed to become a chaplain’s clerk and has become known for helping out fellow inmates. He has also completed a 2-year degree from the State University as well as the prison’s other rehabilitation programs.

Berkowitz had his first parole hearing in July 9, 2002. At this hearing, Berkowitz, then 49 years of age, frankly told the parole board that he had no idea as to why he committed his murders and believed that he did not deserve parole. To this day, Berkowitz has continually shown remorse and begs forgiveness from the families left behind by the people he murdered.

There are however some people who remain skeptical of the sincerity of Berkowitz’s conversion, author Court TV editor Marilyn Bardsley believes that Berkowitz’s rehabilitation and remorse are sincere. “Berkowitz is a long way from normal and always has been,” says Bardsley in her article in Court TV’s crime library featuring David Berkowitz. “It appears as though he understands this fact and is trying to do the best he can to straighten himself out. He has the rest of his life to work on it in prison, where, he realizes, that he definitely belongs,” she further says.

The “BTK Killer,” Dennis Rader

In August 18, 2005, 60-year old Dennis Rader of Park City, Kansas was sentenced to 10 consecutive life sentences (175 years) with no chance of parole for at least 40 years at the El Doraro Correctional Facility. Rader who was usually described as “the guy who wasn’t too noticeable” was the BTK (Bind, Torture, Kill) Serial Killer who terrorized Wichita between 1974 and 1991(“Inside the Mind of the Mind Hunter: An Interview with Legendary FBI Agent John Douglas Criminal Profiler John Douglas Will Share His Understanding of the Criminal Mind at September’s APA Conference,” 2007).

Rader was a man who relished his authority as a “code compliance officer.” He was known to meddle in other’s people’s affairs and imposed “codes” obsessively often peppering people with citations for the minutest reasons (Bardsley, Bell and Lohr). He was the type of serial killer who liked to dominate and “exercise power and control.” He shocked the world with his multiple murder of 4-members of the Otero family in 1974. This multiple murder was the start of his lust for blood that would lead him to kill 6 more people in the following years, often employing his modus operandi of binding, torturing and killing his victims (p.40).

Rader claims that it was the existence of demons within him that drove him to kill. He also claims that his arrest was long due and that he “played cat and mouse with the police until they finally figured it out.”(p.41) Former FBI profiler Gregg McCrary who was one of the profilers who completed a profile of the BTK murderer called the attention seeking ploys by BTK to be tools of power:  Frightening the public is like playing God. It’s a heady, intoxicating experience, so they’re not afraid to make contact with you (the media) or police — that’s all a part of the game for a guy like this. He’s outwitted law enforcement and everybody else all these years. (“BTK Returns”)

This hunger for attention was something that Rader himself proved during his sentencing where he cried copiously and gave a speech that alternated between criticizing the District Attorney’s office for their presentation of the case and attempting to make a show of remorse towards the victims’ families…an attempt that nobody believed and prompted a walkout from the surviving families seconds into Rader’s speech (Bardsley, Bell and Lohr).

Jeffrey Dahmer

By the early 90’s very few things could shock the people of America in terms of serial killers and crime…until Jeffrey Dahmer came along (Wilson& Wilson, 2005,p.118). Dahmer was not only a serial killer. His career as such started when he was 18 years old in 1968 and continued until his final arrest in 1991. By that time had already murdered 17 men and boys in addition to sexually assaulting others. In addition to committing murder, Dahmer was also a necrophile and cannibal. In fact at the time of his arrest, police were able to find severed heads, genitals and hands in Dahmer’s freezer along with plastic bags of human “meat” that Dahmer confessed he had been eating.

Relief was the best word to describe Dahmer’s demeanor during his cooperation with police. Some believe that Dahmer was glad that his killing career was over (p.119). Despite their relief however, Dahmer entered a plea of guilty but by reason of insanity at his July 13, 1992 trial. Dahmer’s defense team argued that the very bizarre natures alone of Dahmer’s crimes were proof enough of his insanity. The prosecution however countered that Dahmer had proven himself to be a very gifted “manipulator who knew exactly what he was doing” (Bardsley)

The jury rejected the plea and convicted Dahmer to 15 consecutive life terms totaling 957 years to be served at the Columbia Correctional Institute in Wisconsin. Here Dahmer was initially placed apart from the prison’s general population for his own safety. Later however, Dahmer was able to convince prison officials to allow him to eat and work with the other inmates. He was able to adjust well and even became one of the prison’s model prisoners until his death on November 28, 1994 after being attacked by delusional schizophrenic Christopher Scarver who was doing time for first-degree murder and believed he was the son of God (Wilson and Wilson, 2005, p132).

There were questions that arose following Dahmer’s death as to why he was paired up with two of the prison’s more dangerous inmates. Dahmer’s victims were mostly black youths. Jesse Anderson was a white man who killed his wife and tried to pin the murder on a black man. Christopher Scarver was a black schizophrenic. The explosive nature of the combination alone was very obvious according to some observers (Bardsley).

Bardsley cites some claims that Dahmer found God during the time of his life in prison. Minister Roy Ratcliff ministered to Dahmer and conducted a full-immersion baptism that was meant to be a re-affirmation of Dahmer’s faith. They are some however who believe that such claims were only publicity stunts in the part of Ratcliff. Some on the other hand, are of the opinion that Dahmer’s skills as a deceiver and manipulator obviously took Ratcliff in (p.22).

Arthur Shawcross, the “Genessee River Serial killer”

Arthur Shawcross was another serial killer who tried a “not guilty by reason of insanity” defense at his trial in November 1990. His defense cited “war time atrocities” that Shawcross allegedly witnessed in addition to alleged child abuse he suffered that gave rise to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Shawcross himself gave up many confessions where he detailed mutilating and eating body parts of his victims. These confessions found very little basis in the known facts held by police and were since dismissed as attempts to substantiate his insanity plea.

Attempts by his defense team to hire psychiatrists and neurologists to testify that Shawcross had a condition that impaired his judgment of right and wrong ended up in the experts testifying on the prosecution’s side. Shawcross was judged to be “sane and guilty” and was sentenced to ten counts of second-degree murder with “25 years to life on each of the 10 counts” or 250 years in prison before being eligible for a parole hearing to be served at the Sullivan Correction Facility in Fallsburg, New York.(Ramsland)

In interviews conducted with Shawcross in the years following his conviction, Shawcross just rehashed his stories of allegedly mutilating and eating body parts of his victims. Dorothy Lewis, one of the psychiatrists that figured in the trial believes that all these stories are just fabrications and had no actual basis in fact.

Are Treatment and Rehabilitation Possible for the Psychotic and Sociopathic Serial Killers?

In the case of brutal and gruesome murders, there always comes the question of whether the crime is caused by mental defects that require and can possibly be fixed by rehabilitation and treatment, or is it a case of pure evil that belongs either behind bars or in the grave. (Gondles, 1999, p. 6)
The M’Naghten Rules that offers the most influential legal definition for insanity in Europe and the United States define “Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity” (NGRI) as:
…a person as NGRI if he ‘does not know what he is doing is wrong’. This could mean: (1) he mistakenly thinks it is against the law, (2) he mistakenly thinks it is contrary to socially accepted morality, (3) he mistakenly thinks it is morally right, and (4) he fails to appreciate that it is contrary to the law or socially accepted morality (Reznek, 1997, p. 155).

Reznek (1997) also points out that insanity from the layperson/juror’s point of view is  very different from the legal sense. To the layman, if a suspect claims to be possessed by Satan or hears voices from the man on the moon, then that person is insane (p.24). Of the five cases discussed in this paper, there are three common themes: insanity, attention seeking and skill in manipulation and deception. Given the gruesome and strange nature of the crimes they have committed, it would be easy for jurors to quickly say “he’s crazy.”

Psychiatrists, investigators and profilers questioned by the prosecution in each case pointed out however that all five have admitted or have proven the capacity to lay out plans for an insanity defense. They also adhere to the symptoms of psychopathy and sociopathy. Are their crimes brought about by mental illness?

Being diagnosed as either psychopathic or sociopathic by itself does not necessarily make one a murderer according to Lykken (1995). By definition, people with anti-social personality disorders are simply those who have failed to develop any mechanisms of conscience, guilt and other mental and emotional controls necessary to understand laws, punishment and reprimands (Lykken, 1995, p. 6).

People with these disorders can still function and even become good, aggressive leaders with their ruthlessness and lack of conscience. There are some however like serial killers, who go to extremes and become violent and murderous.  The American justice system is founded on the general idea that humankind is fundamentally rational and logical. There is the idea that punishment can deter crime and rehabilitate offenders (Reed, 1997, p. 2) But what if these offenders are claiming to have received their “kill” orders from demonic entities or mental disorders? Is there any possibility that their anti-social personality disorders be treated?

There are some people who believe that conversion and rehabilitation is indeed possible as evidenced by the change and new faith exhibited by Berkowitz and Dahmer. Dr. Jeffrey Abracen with Canada’s Correctional Service and the Toronto District Parole Office says that most psychologists may ably diagnose psychopathy in incarcerated inmates with the guide of diagnostic criteria listed in the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R). He however cautions that while diagnosis is certainly possible, it would be very difficult to effectively ascertain and measure whether the treatment being administered to offenders is effective given the natural glib, charm and deception that comes natural to psychopaths. Abracen however stresses that treatment is certainly possible as long as there is teamwork and good rapport between the treating psychiatrist and the patient/offender (Evans 2005).

John Douglas, former head of the FBI’s Investigative Support Unit says that psychology in the case of psychopathic and sociopathic serial killers may only be helpful to a certain extent. Unlike Abracen, Douglas believes that full treatment and rehabilitation cannot be accomplished and measured effectively enough by psychology.  I’ve given presentations to mental health professionals, and some have told me that they do not want to look at crimes perpetrated by the offender, because–if they did–it may prejudice their evaluation.

They would instead rely on self-reporting, which to me is worthless because rarely will offenders tell you the truth. They will test you to see whether you know their case. Once they know you have no clue, be ready to be shoveled a lot of manure. (“Inside the Mind of the Mind Hunter: An Interview with Legendary FBI Agent John Douglas Criminal Profiler John Douglas Will Share His Understanding of the Criminal Mind at September’s APA Conference,” 2007)

There are proposals that perhaps one way to stem the flow of criminal psychopaths is to start at childhood. All five serial killers discussed have shown disturbing signs of the disorder as may be evidenced by their personal histories and earlier arrest records. There is however the disturbing development of the budding child psychopathic killers such as nine year old Jeffrey Bailey Jr. who wanted to see someone drown and pushed his 3-year old friend into the deep end of a pool in Florida in 1986. Or the three first-graders who were caught deliberating whether to kill one of their hated classmates by shooting, stabbing or hanging in northwest Indiana in 2000 (Ramsland, p.1). The many definitions, labels and categories of all disorders linked to killers and violent offenders have become so overlapped that it has become difficult to identify which is which anymore (McCallum, 2001, p. 6)


The general description of all categories cited under the Anti-Social Personality disorder lists compulsive and remarkable lying capabilities, skillful manipulation, grandiosity, craving for attention and lack of remorse and empathy. Given this, how can anyone be sure that the treatment being given is effective? The researcher agrees that people must all have their chance at redemption. However, given the recidivist nature of serial killers offenses, the researcher is inclined to believe that serial killers are the exception to the rule. Abracen represents the group of psychiatrists and believers of rehabilitation and forgiveness that teamwork, professional guidance and the building of a relationship that the person being treated may learn to trust are the key things to treating and successfully rehabilitating psychopathic/sociopathic offenders.

However, FBI agent John Douglas makes a good point in citing how most psychologists/psychiatrists inhibit themselves from knowing the trial details and police reports of the offender’s crimes relying mostly on their interaction with the offender him/herself for their assessments. How then can they be sure that they are not being deceived and manipulated as well? It is well enough to think optimistically that practitioners in the field of psychology are well-trained to do their jobs.

Though the researcher agrees with this, the researcher maintains a reservation towards the efficacy of psychological treatment on psychopathic/sociopathic serial killers. Serial killers such as the ones enumerated in this paper have carried out their crimes and deceit over a long period of time. Dahmer was a habitual offender who consistently made a show of remorse for his previous crimes prior to his final arrest to the point of writing letters of apology and promises of “it will never happen again” to the presiding judge (Wilson and Wilson, 2005, p.127). There is a difference between just lying and compulsive lying. Their acting and manipulative skills are so good and these are just some of the reasons why the body count of their victims reached what they did.

With child psychopaths, the researcher believes that there may be a possibility of treatment as long as the disorders are caught early. On that area, perhaps early and rigorous rehabilitation may work. The challenge that the researcher foresees however, is whether it will be easy for any adult, least of all parents who have the most chance of observing behavioral kinks to come to terms with the possibility that a young child may be a budding psychopath.

On the adult serial killers as discussed in this paper however, unless there comes a true and proven treatment for violent and murderous tendencies among people with anti-social personality disorders, the researcher will have to agree with the words of Washington Times journalist Fred Reed who sums up his thoughts as “Sick puppies need permanent lock-up.” (Reed, 1997, p. 2)


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Treatment and Rehabilitation of Serial Killers after Crime

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