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Serial killers: Can science control them?

  • The FBI is investigating cold-case homicides that may have been committed by serial killer Israel Keyes
  • The search is raising questions about what motivates killers like Keyes
  • A notable forensic psychiatrist says one day science will be able to diagnose and control serial killers
Serial killers: Can science control them?
Dr. Helen Morrison

Chicago-based psychiatrist Dr. Helen Morrison spent more than 600 hours interviewing serial killer John Wayne Gacy.

As the FBI continues to investigate cold-case homicides that may have been committed by serial killer Israel Keyes, who admitted to killing eight people before taking his own life last year, they’re also unearthing age-old questions about what motivates killers like Keyes -- and what can be done to stop them.

One notable forensic psychiatrist believes that, in the future, doctors will be able to diagnose potential serial killers and possibly even control their urge to kill.

"Control, the way we control diabetes, the way we control depression, the way we control other illnesses," says psychiatrist Dr. Helen Morrison, who is based in Chicago, Illinois. "Just like the way we have less chicken pox now -- like diseases we are able to manage, not cure."

It's a brave new world, one that faces a lot of scientific and legal obstacles, but Morrison believes what makes a person a serial killer is "95 percent in the brain," and that science will find the answer one day, even if it takes decades. Morrison (who is pictured to the left) says a key to this could be implanting electrodes into the brains of serial killers to map any abnormalities.

“Last summer, there was a research project dealing with putting electrodes in the brain of people who are not responding to anti-depression medication -- people who are very, very depressed. And finding that being able to put electrodes in certain areas of the brain can alleviate that depression," she says.

That experiment, Morrison adds, could reveal clues about the minds of serial killers and the internal triggers that may cause such behavior.

Inside the mind of a killer

Either as an forensic scientist or as an evaluative psychiatrist, Morrison has worked on 135 serial killing cases around the world, starting in the late 1970s. She has been involved in some infamous cases, including that of John Wayne Gacy. The Chicago, Illinois, man, who often dressed up as a clown at charitable events, was convicted in 1980 of raping and killing 33 boys and young men he had lured into his home over a period of six years.

Morrison says of her research of killers who have committed seven or more homicides, the cases are eerily similar.

"It was as if they were cut from a cookie cutter. They are cut from the same cloth, so that when I go to Russia, or Brazil or Indonesia, I can predict that person. I can predict their behavior. And it's not because I'm brilliant but because I've seen enough of these people to say 'Hey, we have a condition that we can't diagnose because we're not allowed to,' Morrison says. “But, if we could study more of these people's brain structure function with some of the newer tools that we have, we might be able to find a pattern."

But a pattern may not necessarily suggest motive. The Gacy case was one of the first serial killer cases Morrison worked on, and that's when she began to formulate a theory that there is no tried-and-true explanation for what motivates serial killers. Morrison spent more than 600 hours interviewing Gacy.

"There was no motive. He didn't hate his mother. He didn't despise his father. He wasn't on drugs. I mean there was no human motive whatsoever," she says. "He looked like a blob. He had manners. He said, 'Here, would you like this, what can I do for you'? But, it was all like reading from a script. Most people, when they meet someone, they have a reaction to them, an emotional feeling or they'll have some type of impression. I had no impression of him. And even after the 600 hours, there was never any type of attachment. He was like a blank, hollow piece of whatever you want to call it. And also, when you work with somebody for a period of time they have a reaction to you. And for me it was as if I was always starting over with him -- that he did not retain memory, he did not retain any emotional connection whatsoever."

Searching for triggers

Eventually, Morrison's research led her to the brain, looking for the reasons why serial killers kill. She was one of the doctors who performed Gacy's autopsy, and she removed his brain for experimentation. Gacy's brain did not yield any notable scientific findings. However, this hasn't changed Morrison’s theory that the brain may hold the answers. She now wants to conduct research on live serial killers that’s not unlike the electrode experiment done last summer on people suffering from depression.

"So, that [electrode experiment] kinda follows my theory that there is a part of the brain that is triggered by some genetic change -- not inheriting a gene," she says. "You don't inherit the gene like blue eyes or brown hair. But, a change in the gene itself, an epigenetic change. And that acts with the hormones, the developmental aspects of the person. And at some point there is a trigger that we don't know in adolescence. The first murders occur in the years 15 to 19."

Morrison says the law will not allow her to put electrodes in convicted serial killers' brains, because the prisoners can't legally consent to a medical experiment, since under the law they don't technically have free will. But she believes the implantation of electrodes is the next big step science needs to take to understand the compulsion to kill.

"We could measure what we expect would be an abnormality," Morrison says. "We can do in-depth genetic mapping, and try to figure what is that leads to the actions."

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