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Thursday, December 22, 2011

"Senseless" Killings: The Mystery of Why

     Occasionally murder-suicides occur that cannot be explained or understood. While the vast majority of murders are either motivated by greed, lust, power, fear, or rage, every once in awhile someone takes a life for no apparent reason. These cases are disturbing because there is a need to make sense out of such deviant, violent behavior.

     In 1958, Dr. Marvin Wolfgang (1924-1998) at the University of Pennsylvania, in his classic text, "Patterns in Criminal Homicide," coined the term "victim precepitation." According to Wolfgang, in a high percentage of criminal homicides, the victim contributed to his or her fate by being the first to begin "the interplay of criminal violence" such as drawing a weapon, or striking the first blow. In terms of motive, these homicides are easy to understand.

     In his 1967 book, "The Subculture of Violence," Wolfgang found that 90 percent of criminal homicides are crimes of passion that are "unplanned, explosive, and determined by sudden motivational bursts." These killers act so quickly on their impulses there is simply no time for reasoning or restraint. Homicide investigators are familiar with subjects who have killed people for the smallest of reasons such as a casual argument over an insignifcant point, a minor insult, or a mild frustration over something trivial. Investigators call these killings "simplicity of motive" cases.

The Virginia Tech Murder-Suicide

     Around noon on Thursday, December 8, Ross Ashley, a part-time business student at Radford University, walked up to a Virginia Tech University police car and shot the officer, Deriek Crouse, to death. Ashley, after killing the 39-year-old campus police officer, ran off. Shortly after the murder, Ross Ashley took his own life.

     In the wake of this case, the question everyone asked was, why? Ashley was not a Virginia Tech student, he had no connection to the man he killed, and possessed no history of violence or serious mental illness. There was, however, something out of kilter in Ashley's life. The day before he had robbed his landlord's office and took the keys to a Mercedes-Benz. He had also purchased a gun some time earlier and had been to a shooting range. But how do these events foreshadow murder-suicide?

     Nothing in Marvin Wolfgang's books gives us a clue to criminal homicides like this one. And combing through the details of Ross Ashley's life won't help. The killer himself may not have known why he was doing what he did. Some murders, and suicides, cannot be explained or understood.  

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