TCS Daily

Cho No More: We Can Stop Mass Killings

By Eugene Methvin - September 4, 2007 12:00 AM

Seung Hui Cho gave plenty of warning signs of his violent suicidal explosion, long before he killed 32 fellow students and faculty and then himself at Virginia Polytechnic Institute on April 17. Indeed, the day he was supposed to read a play for an English class critique, dozens of students stayed away. The teacher asked where everybody was. "They are afraid of Cho," came the answer from seven who dared show.

He so unnerved several female students by his practice of snapping photos of their legs under their desks they quit coming to class. In December 2005, police hauled him off, a judge signed an involuntary commitment order deeming him dangerous and sent him to a Radford, Va., psychiatric hospital for evaluation. A doctor declared him mentally ill but not an "imminent threat," a Supreme Court term whose meaning the justices have never explained, and the judge released him.

At present no law requires a person judged dangerous to go to counseling. Moreover there is precious little evidence counseling can "help." A defining symptom of the paranoid personality is that he does not think there is anything wrong with himself. He thinks the rest of the world is "sick," and needs correcting, by gunfire or bomb if necessary. As his megalomania and paranoia grow, his rage builds against us all until he explodes in a bloody mess. In most mass murders red flags aplenty signaled disaster ahead. Usually people had complained to police, and many mass killers had police records.

Even when a person recognizes his own dangerousness and seeks "help," often he seeks in vain. Patrick Purdy is a prime illustration. When he was nine on two separate occasions neighbors found him and two siblings alone at home. The second time, police charged the mother with neglect. At age 12 they investigated him for assault. At 13 they took a pellet rifle away from him and later listed him as "beyond parental control." At 14, he was experiencing alcoholic blackouts, and a judge sent him to the county mental health center in Stockton, Calif. On his own he returned repeatedly. As an older teenager he compiled a long record of theft, alcoholism, possessing dangerous weapons, vandalism, fighting, purse snatching, and multiple jail terms.

Evaluators pinned on Purdy such disparate labels as: strong sociopathic features, retarded, epilepsy, drug dependence, substance-induced personality disorder, emotional and sexual immaturity, depression, borderline personality disorder, poor judgment, poor impulse control. He sought treatment for "suicidal ideation," and at 22 bought his first pistol. Soon he sought treatment again: "I'm not thinking the way I should," he said, because he was hearing voices telling him "to do things" and he was strongly identified with the Oklahoma postal worker who had just slaughtered 14 co-workers. "Come back next day," he was told. He did, crying about the "voices." He was given the antipsychotic drug Thorazine and told to return in a week. Next day he bought a Browning .9mm pistol. For the next two years he repeatedly sought treatment, complaining of suicidal and homicidal thoughts. A psychiatric facility where he spent time as an inpatient classified him as "extremely dangerous" and put him on a suicide watch. He served 45 days in jail. A few months later he was back at the Stockton mental health center begging: "I can't go on like this," saying he had night urges to break things.

On January 3, 1989, Purdy entered a Stockton bar wearing camouflage clothing, showing off an AK-47 assault rifle. "You're going to read about me in the papers," he boasted.

Two days later parked beside a school playground crowded with 500 children. He set off a bomb that engulfed his car in flames, donned orange ear plugs, and began firing. He emptied two drum magazines, firing 105 rounds, and at the sound of approaching police sirens, shot himself in the head. He killed five and wounded 31.

So what can we do about people like Cho Seung Hui and Patrick Purdy? Must we wait like dumb sheep at a slaughterhouse until such aberrant people explode and kill us in batches?

History tells us otherwise. In 1949 Maryland adopted a pioneering "defective delinquent" law that offers a solution. Maryland acted when a young legislator was moved by a series of senseless, violent Baltimore murders. The 19-year-old son of a wealthy family, Herman Duker, held up a milkman, father of two, and without provocation shot him dead. As a small child Duker exhibited appalling cruelty to animals and deviant sexual behaviors, both of which persisted for years. Arrests for thefts and burglaries began at an early age. At 16 he was diagnosed as a psychopathic personality, and two years later committed his sensational murder.

The judge sentenced Duker to hang because, he said, if given a life sentence the violent young man would be a lifelong danger even to the prison guards. The fault was Maryland's, said the judge, for not having laws and an institution to cope with such sane but obviously aberrant criminals. The governor commuted the death sentence, echoing the judge's complaint.

A young lawyer named Jerome Robinson was in the courtroom the day Duker was sentenced. A few years later Robinson was in the Maryland legislature. He headed a "blue ribbon" study commission embracing the best legal and psychiatric minds of the time. They produced the 1951 "defective delinquent" law creating a hybrid prison and mental hospital, the Patuxent Institution, which opened its doors in 1955. It was a sound solution to the terrible problem posed by explosive criminals like Duker and James. The nation's best psychiatric authorities agreed such psychopaths comprise an unusual category of compulsive criminals who, while knowing the difference between right and wrong and hence legally "sane," nevertheless lack the normal moral restraints on rage impulses.

The law's authors made their priorities clear: 1. Protect the public. 2. Provide treatment within the limits of current psychiatric knowledge. 3. Research to advance the science. They wanted it made difficult to get into Patuxent, and then difficult to get out. Fourteen elaborate safeguards surrounded a convicted criminal before he could be committed to Patuxent -- many more than in other state civil proceedings permitting potentially lifetime civil commitment for insanity that federal courts had frequently upheld against constitutional attacks. Only convicted criminals were candidates for admission. A candidate was entitled to have psychiatrists of his own choice examine him and testify in his behalf, at state expense. And the ultimate question was left not to psychiatrists but to a citizen-jury: did this convicted criminal, "by the demonstration of persistent, aggravated antisocial or criminal behavior... evidence a propensity toward criminal activity... so as to clearly demonstrate an actual danger to society?"

For some, regardless of the sentence for the original offense, their prison term spent at Patuxent was for life.

The legislators who wrote the law knew it and meant it to be so. In the first ten years, 46 percent of inmates served beyond their expired sentences, a proportion that by 1972 dropped to 20 percent. One inmate, William L. McDonough, got a one-year sentence for an assault conviction in 1962 and spent ten years in Patuxent before being paroled. Roosevelt Murray was committed in 1958 after conviction for unlawful use of an automobile, for which he could have received a four-year sentence. He stayed for 16 years, until in February 1974 a jury decided he was safe to release.

The Patuxent Institution compiled a remarkable record of success. In 1971 Dr. Emory F. Hodges, a Virginia psychiatrist and member of a presidential task force on prison reform, estimated in the American Journal of Psychiatry that Patuxent had saved 391 former inmates, the hardest of hardcore compulsive criminals, from repeating criminal acts as they would likely have done if they had gone through their normal prison sentences. He estimated these Patuxent alumni would have been arrested for 1500 new crimes in their three or more years of liberty, and have committed many thousands more for which they would have escaped arrest. Hodges heavily credited the indefinite sentence, and concluded the institution was preventing a larger volume of crime with each passing year.

Patuxent was costly. In 1970 the institution had about 485 inmates and 12 psychiatrists, about a fifth of the total working in prisons in the entire nation. Maryland prisons held about 5000 other criminal convicts, with no fulltime psychiatrists and only four part-time, while Patuxent had ten, plus five psychologists and 13 social workers for 485 patients. The state spent about five times as much on Patuxent inmates as on ordinary state prisoners

From the start, Maryland's defective delinquent law faced powerful enemies. It made strange allies out of two usually antagonistic groups: the civil libertarians, and penny-pinching conservatives. A bill to cripple or abolish the institution was introduced early in its life. But an inmate, Clayton Breeding, was released when his lawyer persuaded a jury to disregard the Patuxent psychiatrists' recommendations. After release Breeding murdered a 19-year-old bride, pregnant with her first child, in her rural home. The lawyer declared he'd carry a heavy burden to his grave over his supposed "victory." The episode immunized the defective deliquent law from critics for several years.

But in 1976 legislators quailed before the onslaught of civil libertarians, conservative penny-pinchers, and leftover protesters from the paranoid "don't trust anybody over thirty" generation who orchestrated an assault on Patuxent as a hate target in an effort to resuscitate their dying protest movement. They were aided by Ken Kesey's novelistic portrayal of insane asylums in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and the subsequent movie, which helped whip public paranoia into a frenzy. Under guise of "reform" the legislators declared inmates could be kept only as long as the maximum sentence for which they were convicted. They took the jury out of the process completely. And they let long termers volunteer to serve their terms at Patuxent if they had at least three years to serve. The long termers volunteered in droves, figuring all they had to do was learn the right psychobabble buzzwords to feed back to psychiatrists and social workers to go free. The "reforms" converted Patuxent into a shortcut to freedom for criminal psychopaths, a notoriously manipulative breed, a "hurry out house."

Brain science is in its infancy. While knowledge of biology and psychology has improved in the 52 years since Patuxent opened, diagnosis and treatment of mental illness are still primitive. The evolution of the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual demonstrate the inexactitude of the science. Intended as a field guide to psychiatric disorders, its revisions since the first edition was published in 1952 have seen changes that reflect social trends more than the gathering of medical understanding. Homosexuality, for example, is no longer included among the conditions listed. While the term "schizoid" is passé, paranoid and schizotypal personality disorder features overlap with schizophrenia, long considered an organic brain disease. The terms "sociopath" and "psychopath" are subsumed under the label "antisocial personality disorder," which covers so many other obstreperous personalities. The label obscures rather than clarifies. Even the most recent version, DSM IV, published in 1994, is now under revision.

Inquests find many mass killers are psychopaths seeking excitement, paranoid schizophrenics driven by voices urging them to kill, or are faint-hearted depressives who want to commit "suicide by cop" and take as many fellow human beings as possible with them to give their lives significance. "Better to be noted for murder than not noted at all," one observer explained. Psychopaths comprise an estimated one to two percent of the population. New York City alone has an estimated 100,000. The United States has an estimated two million adult victims of schizophrenia -- a catchall term like "cancer" that covers a variety of kindred brain disorders. "The more we learn about schizophrenia the less we understand," one physician told me. "In the end it will turn out to be 27 different diseases like bad colds or cancer." The formal diagnosis is applied only to those who have had psychotic breaks -- hallucinations, delusions, and such. But another estimated 10 million to 25 million, five to ten percent of the population, are "borderline" or "schizoid" personalities. These are people who go through life as emotional cripples. A common symptom of schizophrenia is anhedonia, the inability to experience pleasure, either sexual or intellectual excitement, one of the basic emotions that makes us human.

Clearly VPI's Seung Hui Cho was anhedonic, and as a result, a "loner" and social isolate. He simply got no "fun" from human contact. Colorado's 1999 Columbine high school massacre of thirteen students and a teacher was carried out by a 17-year-old psychopath and a suicidal depressive follower, according to an FBI study by agent-psychologists and outside psychiatrists. At the State University of New York at Albany in 1994, 26-year-old Ralph J. Tortorici held 35 fellow students in a Greek history class hostage with a .270 Remington rifle. He threatened to kill them all if he were not allowed to talk to Gov. Mario Cuomo and President Clinton to force doctors at the local medical center to admit they put a microchip in his brain when he was born. Classmates piled on and subdued Tortorici, who went to prison, where he hanged himself five years later.

Since Maryland essentially repealed its defective delinquent law in 1976, new microchip-based tools have opened the brain to astounding investigation. Microchip technology and superfast computers today make possible correlational calculations that whole roomfuls of mathematicians could not have done in their entire lifetimes twenty years ago. Neurologists and psychologists developed techniques of the functional MRI (fMRI), especially how to compare the live workings of the "normal" and pathological brain. In 1992 Dr. Robert Hare of the University of Vancouver told me about the results of the first fMRIs comparing the brains of normal and psychopathic subjects. "Gene, it's like they come from a different planet!" he exclaimed. Hare has devised a two-part "check list" based on such objective records as arrests, divorces, and educational history plus a trained interviewer's ratings to identify psychopaths. Canadian officials have used Hare's "Psychopathy Check List" to predict with amazing accuracy which prisoners released on parole will land back in prison for violent behavior and other new crimes. Meantime Hare has led a loose consortium of neurologists worldwide in compiling enough fMRI studies and similar research to divide psychopaths into four subcategories based on objective brain pathologies and develop criteria for ruling out that bugaboo of civil libertarians, "false positives," people who the show warning signs but never resort to violence.

Today psychologists do longitudinal correlations only dreamed of in previous generations. USC psychologists tested 335 three-year-olds for temperament and skin-conductance reaction to neutral and unpleasant [aversive] tones. They were tested again 25 years later for psychopathic traits. The more psychopathic adults turned out to have been the children who were less inhibited and fearful as three-year-olds. The researchers concluded that there may be early childhood temperament and psychophysiological signs of developing adult psychopathic traits. It was the first study ever to connect early childhood signs with psychopathy in adulthood. The hope is that further research can develop a wide variety of preventive methods ranging from wise parenting techniques to therapy, academic tutoring, peer associations and the like divert potential psychopaths from developing more malignant behaviors.

I recently toured the University of Georgia's sparkling new Clinical and Cognitive Research Laboratory with its director, Dr. Brett Clementz. The lab has three multimillion dollar machines never before assembled under one roof and devoted solely to brain research. The fMRI machine enables researchers to tease out which brain tissues are active when the test subject performs specified tasks. The high-density electroencephalograph records electrical activity from 257 locations simultaneously. The magnetoencephalograph presents the subject with visual, auditory and somatosensory stimuli and "reads" the magnetic reaction from several brain locations at once. And the responses from both fMRI and MEG can be aligned by computers in a single visual presentation.

Suppose such a facility had produced studies of the brains of several dozen mass killers against which the Radford hospital psychiatrist who examined Seung Hui Cho could have matched. He most certainly never would have declared him no threat and sent him back to campus with a "recommendation" for out-patient treatment.

We have only begun to use these new devices to explore the brains of mass killers and serial killers. But our ability to "treat" violent psychopaths and paranoid schizophrenics has progressed little by comparison. So there is still great need for the kind of institution Maryland created to try to deal with their criminal tendencies, to heal them if we can and study them to advance our science. In 1970 Chief Justice Warren Burger, who crusaded against prisons that merely warehoused, declared Maryland's institution "one of the best to be found anywhere." The National Conference of State Trial Judges said Maryland's law "represents the most enlightened and forward-looking approach existing anywhere in the United States to the solution of the problem of the sociopathic offender." The trial judges recommended states enter compacts to create and fund regional institutions such as Maryland's to deal with "defective delinquents."

So we do not need to go charging off in a panic over the Seung Hui Chos of this world. We have plenty languishing in our prisons and institutions for the criminally insane to study, and the tools to do it. Howard Unruh, America's first modern mass murderer, strolled through his Camden, NJ, neighborhood in 1949 killing 13 people, then walked home and sat down waiting for police. He was diagnosed a paranoid schizophrenic, never tried, and is still kept in a New Jersey asylum at the age of 86. Virginia holds the expelled law student who killed three and wounded three in 2002 at the Appalachian Law School in Grundy, Va. New York has Lois Lang, who was repeatedly arrested and diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic in Washington State, flew to Manhattan in 1985 under a delusion she was owed money, and murdered Nicholas Deak, the financier, and his receptionist.

Today, we have the knowledge to do a far better job of identifying potential mass killers like Seung Hui Cho, protect the public by institutionalizing them, and study their pathologies to improve the science of treating them.

All we lack is the will.

Washington-based journalist Eugene H. Methvin has reported on the American criminal justice system since 1952.



Simple solution
Raise the legal age of abortion to 18.

Would this not lead to very polite children? Superb, Colonel Killbuzz.

Follow the 2nd Amendment
If eveyone were allowed to defend themselves, as the 2nd Amendment states, there would be far fewer mass killings.

Interesting article
I'm going look into this a little more. Thanks.

Another failure of the Liberals
How can anyone be held accountable? It is not Cho's fault, it was the states? Sure, the state failed in his case as he lacked a criminal record but what about people who have been in prison countless times just to be let out over and over to eventually torture and kill a young couple?

The entire system is broken.

stopping mass killings
Yes, you could stop mass killings but in the present PC climate it's not possible. Liberals think that identifying, then actually taking some action would hurt the mass murderers self-esteem. In the same manner when an old lady shouts out, 'stop-purse snatcher', the near-by cop would have to have to check out the school girls with their skipping ropes as well as the black teenager running down the street with a ladies handbag. After all, you have to be fair, right?

Where were the real men?
All I know is that if some creep, like this guy, came in shooting I'd be damned before I sat there like a willing target. Where the hell are the real men these days, especially at the PC corrals--aka universities? Hell, I would die attacking this ******* with whatever I could get my hands on--books,desks,pencil, pen--rather than sit there whimpering like a child without a parent (the state) to protect it. Shooting an angry moving target is not all that easy at close quarters.

The real joke is that guys like this know that the state has disarmed the lawful, peaceable people (at least for a 1000 ft radius around schools) and rendered them sitting ducks.

real men
The government, all the liberal teachers and profs, outfits like the ACLU, etc. don't want real men around anymore. They prefer that America be full girlie-men, and are working on that goal all the time with their sensitivity and re-educations camps and all that. The government makes the claim that people don't need to protect themselves because that is the role of the state. Then when they have sheepish people like those coeds who when they noticed that murderer fotoing their legs, just don't go to class instead of effectively stopping him. When men also get so sheepish, the government just loves it, because it makes them easier to control, and that's their main goal.

Too bad we can hear you say "girlie-men".
Agree with your assessment.

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