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Turning your teen in for murder: Heroic or hasty?

  • Dr. Brian Russell is a forensic psychologist and attorney
  • He says even though it is a difficult choice, turning your child in for a capital crime is the right thing to do
  • He also points out that the parents bear responsibility for raising an alleged murderer
Austin Reed Sigg, 17, has been arrested in connection with the murder of Jessica Ridgeway.
Dr. Brian Russell

Editor’s note: Dr. Brian Russell is a licensed forensic psychologist and attorney at law. He is also a correspondent for a forthcoming show on Investigation Discovery. He is on Twitter.

The last time I talked about a mother turning her child in for a capital crime was back during the Casey Anthony trial, when it was widely believed – as it still is – that Cindy Anthony, Casey’s mother, lied to avoid incriminating Casey.

At the time, host Joy Behar opined that she couldn’t blame Cindy Anthony because she (Joy) wouldn’t incriminate her child either, even if that meant refusing to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

I opined, however, that, unlike Joy, Cindy Anthony may well have actively participated – over 18 years of oblivious, dismissive, and indulgent parenting – in the making of a person who exhibits sociopathic behavior, which would give rise to a responsibility on her part to protect innocent others from the result thereof. (Note: Casey Anthony was found not guilty of killing her daughter, Caylee).

Fast-forward to the present, when, in the past several weeks, arrests of teenaged males were made in the high-profile murder cases of two missing girls, Jessica Ridgeway in Colorado and Autumn Pasquale in New Jersey.

A 17-year-old male is in custody in the Ridgeway case; two brothers, ages 15 and 17, are in custody in the Pasquale case. What makes these all-too-familiar cases even more (unfortunately) similar is that in both cases, the tips which precipitated the suspects’ arrests came from the suspects’ mothers. 

Just imagine recognizing evidence, in your home or in your child’s behavior, that your child were guilty of a capital crime. Would you turn your child in? Cindy Anthony arguably didn’t. What the suspects’ mothers did in the Ridgeway and Pasquale cases must not have been easy, but it was the right thing to do. 

We can all acknowledge the courage it took to turn their sons in, but before we nominate these mothers for citizenship awards, we must also acknowledge the roles that they may have played in raising these individuals in the first place. 

There’s a growing body of evidence that nature (genetics) plays some role in the underdevelopment of certain brain structures in sociopaths, but it’s nowhere close to a complete explanation – most people with similarly underdeveloped brain structures grow up to be upstanding citizens. 

There’s a larger, better-established body of evidence that nurturing (childhood attachment, discipline, socialization, etc.) plays a major role in the development of sociopathic behavior patterns. And — nature-nurture factors notwithstanding — conscious choice remains virtually omnipresent and universally capable of overriding other factors as the ultimate determinant of whether sociopathic behavior persists and escalates, at least beyond early adolescence.

Information about the behavioral histories of the suspects in the Ridgeway and Pasquale murders is still being gathered and reported, but I bet that we’ll eventually see clear and escalating patterns of sociopathic behavior of which their parents were unaware. If we do learn of such patterns, they’ll likely have begun well before the first incidents that drew community attention – the moral beliefs and empathic capacities that comprise the consciences of upstanding adolescents and adults are best inculcated very early in life, becoming increasingly difficult to ingrain as a person grows into, and out of, adolescence. 

So, are mothers who turn their teens in for serious crimes heroic, derelict, or both? I say probably both.

Hopefully, news of their cases will reinforce, for mothers and fathers alike, how much better the outcomes could be if they sought help, even from law enforcement, in managing their out-of-control children’s behavior before people get hurt. 

Just this weekend, a mother heroically notified law enforcement that her mentally ill adult son was a wannabe James Holmes copycat, allegedly plotting a massacre at a Missouri movie theater, much like the one allegedly perpetrated by Holmes in Colorado in July. Upon investigation, Missouri law enforcement reportedly found guns and other evidence corroborating the mother’s fears, and the young man is now safely in custody – a far better outcome, both for society and for him, than what could have happened had this mother’s intervention been reactive rather than proactive. 

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