By JESSE LEAVENWORTH, Hartford Courant
The Western states, and California in particular, have been home and hunting
ground to dozens of repeat murderers.
New England, on the other hand, has harbored relatively few.
A recently released study led by University of Connecticut Professor
Emeritus Jim DeFronzo seeks to explain the geographic contrast. Focusing on
151 male serial killers active from 1970 to 1992, researchers found that the
states that spawned these killers and the states where they killed most of
their victims had greater percentages of city dwellers, divorced people and
people living alone.
"There are these social isolation factors that are higher in the West,"
DeFronzo said. "It affects both the vulnerability of victims and the
relative social isolation of potential perpetrators.
The study also linked serial killing demographics to unemployment, the ratio
of state-sanctioned executions to illegal homicides and the classification
of a killer's home state as Southern.
Connecticut was 30th in a ranking of states based on where serial killers
most often sated their blood lust. The Northeast, including New England, was
the least likely region for serial killings in the 22-year study period,
while the West ranked highest, followed by the South and the Midwest.
"Experts traditionally have used psychiatric analyses to understand male
serial killer activity, but the approach has not been able to explain the
considerable geographic differences that exist with serial killings,"
DeFronzo wrote in a press release explaining the study. "This appears to be
the first study to show that both cultural and social structural factors
play a role in serial killings."
In a recent interview, the 60-year-old researcher said he has taught
criminology to a total of about 9,000 UConn students, many of whom were
fascinated by serial killers. They especially wanted to know what
circumstances formed a person who killed strangers to satisfy an urge, he
said. Was the conscience of such a person stripped, or absent from birth?
What broke the wall between evil thought and bloody deed?
Child abuse and neurological factors, including brain damage, have emerged
as common backgrounds of many serial killers, Defronzo said. He looked at
child abuse statistics by state and found connections to serial killer
distribution, but the data was incomplete. Much work remains on the
geography of serial killing, DeFronzo said.
Researchers assigned states to serial killers in two ways: the states where
they grew up and the states where they killed the most victims. In each
analysis, the study applied theories traditionally used to explain criminal
One theory says violent subcultures help potential serial killers see other
people as objects that can serve elaborate fantasies. To measure cultural
support for violence, researchers used the numbers of homicides in each
state and a ratio of state-sanctioned executions to homicides.
"It has been hypothesized,
deterrent effect, capital punishment may have a brutalization effect in
which the probability of additional violence is increased through an
implicit cultural message supporting the killing of those deemed offensive."
The study found a link between homicides and executions in the states where
subjects killed most of their victims, but not a strong link in the states
where killers grew up.
Researchers also used a state's classification as Southern to study the
distribution of serial killings. The South has always had a relatively high
homicide rate and a more militaristic culture, and the term "Southern
region" has been used in other crime studies as an indicator of a violent
The study found that the Southern variable was more strongly linked to
states where serial killers were raised, rather than where they killed. The
results, DeFronzo said, show a slight tendency for serial killers raised in
the South to kill outside their home states.
The other theory researchers employed centers on social structure and the
availability of victims. People who are divorced and those who live alone
are more vulnerable, according to the study, "because they often lack the
guardianship of a spouse or other person."
Divorce also can be a trigger for potential serial killers, said Ann
Burgess, a Boston College professor who is affiliated with a consulting
business called the Forensic Panel. Burgess, who co-authored a book about
serial homicides with members of the FBI's behavioral analysis unit, found
that many killers had absent fathers during the critical juncture of their
adolescence. For some boys, Burgess said, the breaking of emotional
attachments forms a cold, remorseless mind.
"It frees them up to go out and hurt others," she said.
The study led by DeFronzo says that cities provide serial killers with more
potential victims and the ability to melt anonymously into the crowd.
Although New England states have densely populated areas, divorce rates have
been among the lowest in the nation and the percentage of people living
alone also has been lower than in other regions. The study used U.S. Census
figures from 1980, about in the middle of the research period of 1970 to
Researchers were able to establish home states for 120 serial killers, about
80 percent of the total. About half of those 120 men killed most of their
victims in the same states where the killers grew up, according to the
The study's key finding, DeFronzo said, is that regional contrasts in serial
killings and the formation of serial killers can be, at least partially,
explained by relatively high rates of divorce and one-person households and
people clustered in urban areas.
The findings indicate that social disorganization could be a factor in
creating serial killers, DeFronzo said.
A man who moves from his home state and lives alone, for example, may lose
the restraint imposed by family and friends and fall to indulging his worst
The next logical step is to add more specific cultural variables to the mix:
to learn, for example, whether distribution of pornographic and
violence-oriented magazines is related to the prevalence of serial killers
in certain areas, DeFronzo said.
"We need more varied cultural measures and we need to expand the size of the
sample of serial killers," he said.
The study was published in the professional journal Homicide Studies. It is
available online at http://hsx.sagepub.
Source : Hartford Courant