If you are determined to end the lives of a large number of your fellow human beings, you won't want to be without this time-tested advantage.
CN: Sexual assault, homicide
I had a passion for serial killers in college. The topic, not the people. Armed with an investigative mind and a passion for the intersection of psychology and crime, I was seriously pondering a career in forensic psychology as a way to marry my knowledge of violent criminals with my desire to see justice fulfilled.
I read countless books about psychopathy, personality disorders, and violent criminals, written by former FBI profilers, psychiatrists, criminologists, and retired homicide detectives. I developed an unpopular tendency to bring up serial killers out of the blue at social gatherings.
It was while reading the umpteenth such book that I finally made the connection.
John E. Robinson, known as the “first internet serial killer,” was the book’s focus. A pattern surfaced in the pages listing all of the crimes Robinson committed before he’d begun his murder hobby: Every time he found himself arrested, a judge would simply slap him on the wrist. Every time. His crimes were so numerous and egregious that I found myself softly gasping when I read about each crime and the judge’s decisions to essentially put him in the Naughty Corner for five minutes.
In 1969, Robinson embezzled $33,000 (around $260k today) from a doctor. When he was arrested, the judge sentenced Robinson to three years’ probation. He violated his probation by moving out of state in 1970 without permission, but he wasn’t arrested until he was caught embezzling again in 1971 while working as an insurance salesman. For these offenses, the judge thought it appropriate to simply extend his probation.
In 1975, Robinson was arrested again for securities and mail fraud and the judge decided to, wait for it… extend his probation.
In 1982, Robinson was sentenced to jail for embezzling again, but served only 60 days. When he got out, he started a phony medical company and conned a friend out of $25,000 (around $75k today). He hired a 19-year-old to be his sales representative for this company, and she became his first known murder victim, vanishing after she had told her family that her boss was sending her somewhere “for training.” When her family went to the police showing them a letter they received from her that was typed except for her signature, the authorities apparently thought there was nothing odd. They didn’t look into her disappearance. Police would later learn Robinson made his victims sign the bottom of an empty piece of paper so he could later type a letter and send it to the victim’s family for the purpose of staving off suspicions of his victim’s whereabouts and buying himself time. Robinson moved on to using this new thing called “the internet” to find his victims, luring young women from kink chat rooms into being his sex slaves and murdering them.
Jeffrey Dahmer had left a 14-year-old Laotian boy in his apartment so he could go buy alcohol. He had injected hydrochloric acid into the victim’s brain, in what was probably an attempt to turn him into a zombified sex slave, so he felt secure that the boy wouldn’t escape. But he did escape, and when Dahmer returned he found the boy on the street with two women who had called the police because his victim was naked, drugged, bleeding, and wearing handcuffs. None of that mattered to the cops after Dahmer explained that he and the boy were lovers who’d simply had an argument.
The officers led the dazed teen back to Dahmer’s apartment, where he was swiftly killed after they left. Had they searched his apartment properly before leaving, the police would’ve discovered the body of a previous victim still lying on Dahmer’s bedroom floor.
Robert Hansen, “Alaska’s Butcher Baker,” would pick up sex workers, drive or fly them (in his own small plane) to his isolated cabin, sexually assault them and then let them go so he could hunt them down in the woods with his hunting rifle as they fled. He was committing these depraved acts while pretending to be a normal guy who bakes cakes for his community. But he had received his share of wrist-slapping for previous crimes, too. He’d been arrested in 1960 for arson and only served 20 months of his three-year sentence. He was accused of rape in 1971, but nothing came of it. He was arrested for assault with a deadly weapon during the period he was secretly serial killing but served very little time.
Ted Bundy had already severely beaten two young women who both survived, one of them with permanent brain damage, and killed several other women when he attempted to abduct Carol DeRonch. She got away and told the cops her abductor drove a tan Volkswagen Beetle and tried to put handcuffs on her. The key to those handcuffs was later discovered in the school parking lot of a missing student. When the Highway Patrol stopped a tan VW Beetle that was reported for sitting outside someone’s house and watching them, the cop found a ski mask, crowbar, handcuffs, and an ice pick in the car. Bundy was identified as the vehicle owner and arrested, but only charged with “evading police” and soon released. He promptly moved to Florida where he continued to murder young women.
Robinson, Dahmer, Hansen, and Bundy all shared a lucky characteristic, something that allowed them to glide along below the radar, to blend in, and to enjoy every benefit of doubt. They were all white men.
White privilege is “inherent advantages possessed by a white person on the basis of their race in a society characterized by racial inequality and injustice.” It’s a succinct definition, but it only scratches the surface, as there are myriad ways in which being light-skinned in a culture mostly populated and controlled by other light-skinned people can be advantageous. Most dangerously, white people often give other white people the benefit of the doubt. When a white person is behaving suspiciously or even appearing very guilty of criminal activity, other white people often default to judging that person as innocent until proven guilty. “There must be some other explanation”, they say. “John is a church-going family man so he couldn’t be a serial rapist”, they say. “That home alarm is blaring and a white man is climbing through the window, but he must’ve set it off by mistake and accidentally locked himself out of his own house”, they say. Brown and Black people, by contrast, are judged guilty until proven innocent. They can’t even walk home from the store, go jogging, or be at home playing video games without being assumed guilty of something and murdered.
Larry Gene Bell was on his way to serial killer status in South Carolina when the FBI helped catch him before he could abduct and murder a third victim (although many in law enforcement suspect he’d murdered others). Here’s what John Douglas, former Special Agent criminal profiler for the FBI, said about Bell in his 1995 book Mindhunter:
His background quickly emerged. As we’d predicted, he had been involved in various sexual incidents since childhood, which had finally gotten out of hand when he was twenty-six and tried to force a nineteen-year-old married woman into his car at knifepoint. To avoid going to prison, he had agreed to psychiatric counseling, but quit after two sessions. Five months later, he tried to force a college girl into his car at gunpoint. He received a five-year prison term and was paroled after twenty-one months. While on probation, he made more than eighty obscene phone calls to a ten-year-old girl. He pleaded guilty and only got more probation.
Most serial killers are white because whiteness provides the necessary minimum conditions of leniency and benefit of doubt that smooth the path toward serial murder. Black and brown offenders are rarely given the benefit of the doubt and often given full sentences for even minor, nonviolent crimes. White male criminals become emboldened with every merciful judgment in a courtroom, each lax punishment affirming the psychopath’s narcissistic belief that they’re smarter than everyone else. They serve light sentences, if they serve at all, then enjoy the freedom to hone their skills and criminal savvy in order to outwit the detectives better next time.
A white man in college accused of being a peeping Tom and stealing women’s underwear from their dorm rooms is more likely to come from a well-off family who can rally (white) friends and family to vouch for their son’s character, helping to create an image of someone who contributes to his community and has a positive future laid out for him, all of which the judge will take into consideration when sentencing him. It would be terrible judgment if the judge handed him the minimum and he only served half of that sentence because voyeurs guilty of breaking and entering have a high recidivism rate and are extremely likely to add violence to their repertoire.
Ed Kemper fatally shot his grandparents when he was 15 years old just because he wanted to know what it would feel like, but was released from a California psychiatric facility when he turned 21. He went on to rape and murder (or murder and rape) several hitchhikers and his mother. Some would consider his release understandable given his first act of violence occurring while he was still a minor, but it’s important to note that Black juvenile offenders are twice as likely to receive a sentence of life without parole as white teens guilty of the same crime. It’s also worth mentioning that psychopaths commonly explain their motivation for violent crimes as nothing more than a curiosity, and there’s currently no effective treatment for psychopathy.
Wayne Williams, the Black perpetrator of the Atlanta Child Murders, had no arrests before he began killing. Neither did Harrison Graham, a Black serial killer from Pennsylvania.
There are exceptions to everything, as Samuel Little proves to be.
Considered the United States’ most prolific serial killer, Samuel Little claimed to have killed 93 women over a span of 35 years. The FBI have confirmed 60 victims so far. His career of crime began when he was still a teenager.
In 1956, Little spent time in juvenile hall for breaking and entering. By the mid-70s, he’d been arrested over 26 times in several states for various crimes, both violent and nonviolent, chief among them attempted rape, fraud, and theft. In 1982 he’s arrested for murder but a grand jury refuses to indict him, then in 1984 he’s charged with murder again but acquitted. He moves to California where he abducts and strangles two women who survive their attacks. For these vicious crimes, he serves only 2 1/2 years in prison.
In Samuel Little’s case, it appears racism was directed more at his victims than at him. Since most of his victims were young Black women who were impoverished or struggling with addiction, their deaths were given a cursory glance and ruled as drug overdoses, suicides, or accidental. It’s been noted that white victims of violence receive far more media attention and empathy from the public than Black or Indigenous victims do. Little himself reportedly believed he’d never be caught because “no one was accounting for [his] victims.”
Serial killers have existed throughout time in most countries. Hundreds of years ago it was probably serial murderers who inspired the monster mythologies of popular culture today. When villagers discovered the brutalized remains of their missing loved ones, werewolves, demons, vampires, and witches were imagined to explain what could’ve inflicted such monstrous evil. One need only look at Jack the Ripper’s horrifying handiwork to see how people would’ve assumed only inhuman creatures could abduct, torture, and kill for no apparent reason.
Mass shooters, on the other hand, are a relatively recent development.
Data on mass shootings vary significantly, partly due to lacking a professional consensus on the definition of a mass shooting. Some sources define it as any shooting in one location at one time in which four or more people died, so these statistics would include the times a drug dealer kills the guys who stole from him or someone decides to shoot their entire family at home. Other sources narrow it down to the impersonal violence the media tends to focus on, the terrifying and inexplicable examples most people envision when they hear the term “mass shooting”. Yet others remind us of the genocidal mass shootings that were perpetrated against Black and Indigenous people, long before Charles Whitman killed 17 people shooting from the University of Texas tower in 1966.
Mass shooters with a personal grievance, motivated to avenge some real or imagined wrongdoing by people they know, come in all races, colors, and ethnicities. But the very public shootings of strangers gathered for some shared purpose, like grocery shopping, movie watching, dancing in a nightclub, or getting an education, seem to mainly be executed by entitled, aggrieved, angry white males. Again, white privilege plays a role.
Conservative white people have been photographed open-carrying AR-15s and other sorts of enormous firearms while picking up donuts and coffee at the cafe, standing in line at the pharmacy, and perusing the bread aisle looking for hot dog buns on sale. The reasons they do this are varied, but what matters is that they feel safe doing so. They know their whiteness means people will give them the benefit of the doubt, despite knowing the men who shoot up the public schools, movie theaters, concert venues, and sidewalks of pedestrians are white. Their blatant displays serve to normalize seeing armed white people, making it even easier for mass shooters to enter public places without ringing alarm bells.
Black people too often can’t even shop for a pellet gun, play with a toy gun, or store their legally owned and licensed firearm in their car’s glove compartment without being seen as a dangerous threat and killed.
So what can we do about all this? Beginning in the early 1990s, several states passed “Three Strikes” laws in an effort to take repeat offenders off the streets for good: after the third conviction, the sentence is automatically 25 years to life, without parole. There have been legitimate criticisms of Three Strikes laws over the years, but some states like California tout their reduction in crime as evidence of their effectiveness. Crime is a complicated issue with a plethora of contributing factors, but fairness and equity in our justice system should not be complicated. Unfortunately, we see this pattern repeated outside of our courtrooms as well, such as the greater likelihood of Black students being harshly disciplined by school staff for minor infractions than white students.
There are several areas in which our criminal justice system needs a serious overhaul. But it seems a small thing to ask that judges track their own biases to avoid treating repeat or violent white offenders like children in need of a stern lecture.