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Crimcast is a virtual resource devoted to critical conversations about criminology and criminal justice issues. Our blogposts, twitter feeds, podcasts and other content provide an overview of trends, research, commentary and events of interest to criminal justice practitioners, academics and the general public. CrimCast is sponsored by The Center for Crime and Popular Culture, St. Francis College, Brooklyn, NY.

Christopher Dorner, Murder Sprees and the Starkweather Syndrome

Nickie Phillips

Charles Starkweather

It is day three of the hunt for murder spree suspect Christopher Dorner and the details of his revenge mission have been dominating cable news (until the giant snowstorm hit the northeast). According to police, Dorner is on a dangerous and dynamic revenge mission which has already resulted in the killing of three people. His manifesto explains that the actions he has been taking are a last resort to clear his name after being fired from the LAPD for excessive use of force.

The events made me wonder whether criminologists have theorized and studied the murder spree as an element of offending that can be teased out from the larger categories of mass or serial killings. Typically, a murder spree is defined as the killing of two or more people without an emotional cooling off period between murders. Sources differ as to whether this can occur in a short (a period of hours or a few days) versus longer episodes of weeks or months.

A quick search on EBSCO revealed very little criminological work on murder sprees, save for some work in the journal Deviant Behavior about criminal opportunity spiraling into a spree as offenders revel in the thrill of it all. Google scholar was more helpful, alerting me to a more recent article about the "Starkweather Syndrome," named after Charles Starkweather who in 1957, with his girlfriend Carile Fugate, went on an eight-day murder spree in Nebraska and Wyoming, captivating the American public and leaving ten people dead.

In coining the Starkweather Syndrome, Matt DeLisi et. al. (2008), as reported in Criminal Justice Studies, found that murderers who acted as part of a crime spree were more violent and criminally versatile (engaged in other crimes during the spree such as robbery and rape) than a control group of non-spree murderers. In addition, offenders with prior histories of robbery and child molestation were more at risk of sprees than other offenders. Duwe Grant in Homicide Studies (2009) compared single and multiple murderers and found a similar conclusion in terms of criminal versatility, but also posited that the causes behind single and multiple murders were probably quite similar.

In looking at what Dorner himself has said about his motives, any student of criminology might go dashing to General Strain Theory (GST).  His manifesto, addressed to America, has the subject line "last resort" and explains:

"Unfortunately, this is a necessary evil that I do not enjoy but must partake and complete for substantial change to occur within the LAPD and reclaim my name."

GST's notion of a psychological strain, such as having one's reputation and career ruined, might lead to a "corrective action" in the form of crime.  The individual seeks radical, irrational and criminal means to address  the psychological strain in a desperate attempt to right a wrong.

Descriptive as GST might be,  it would seem that the explosive versatility and dangerousness of the murder spree, though a rare event, should be more carefully studied from a  narrative or cultural criminological perspective-- a perspective that goes deeper into the social meaning of murder sprees.  GST proponents-- and the media for that matter-- tend to individualize crime problems.   Though individual pathology and responsibility matters, the social and cultural context in which these events occur must also be taken into consideration-- such things as the social fear these events cause within the larger American narrative of fear of crime and the extent to which the perpetrators of murder sprees are acting out in a timeless American performance of the outlaw-with-a-mission.  Dorner himself draws on a classic Thomas Jefferson quote of righteous rebellion: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."

In this sense, the Dorner spree is a "true fiction" in a slightly different way than imagined by Ferrell et. al. and more like their concept of "looping"-- the phenomena of various non-fictional accounts being woven into fictional accounts which then can potentially inspire or inform the trajectories of real events.  In this case, Starkweather and Fugate, among many other American outlaws, inspire entertainment products like Natural Born Killers, or more  relevant for the Dorner case, The Punisher.  Mass media entertainment is the internalized cultural landscape individuals may draw upon when ready to star in their own personal real-life movie of murder and mayhem.

Thomas Jane plays the Punisher

Being ready to do murder and mayhem may not be the result of media consumption-- and Dorner makes clear his uniquely effective ability to do so is most clearly located in his military and police training-- but the script to pull it off with the symbolic action it must have to strike  public fear has already been written countless times featuring the archetypal American anti-hero.  As much as Dorner's actions are tragic and should be condemned, we also can't help acknowledging they would probably make a damn good comic book or movie.

Staci Strobl