Psychopathology and Teen Killers


Thankfully, the numbers of teen psychopaths globally is very small. But the facts are -sadly – the facts. This page is devoted to the work of caring experts who work to make our world a safer place by helping us to understand, identify, and intervene in the cases of the most serious kinds of mental illness that make some few dangerous people commit horrific murders.

Many members of NOVJM have had loved ones murdered by teenage psychopaths.

We note with solemnity that MOST people who are mentally ill are completely non-violent, and that they are much, much more often victims of violent crime – not the perpetrators. We heartily applaud and support the work of NAMI to bring best practices and best information to all the ways that mental illness and the criminal justice system intersect. NAMI has criminal justice committees around the nation who have experts and are a great resource for helping policy makers determine guidelines in sentencing, for example. NAMI has several publications, this one for example, that help frame the discussion.

Nonetheless, rarely, psychopaths do exist and are often extremely dangerous. One of the reasons that many victims’ families, as well as a vast majority of the American public, often support natural life or very long term sentences for extremely violent offenders, even ones who are only 16 or 17 at the time of the crime, is because of the very sad reality of the biological brain disorders under the umbrella term “psychopathology”. Some people are just too dangerous to be allowed to walk among us – probably for life.

How and where we keep them away from us – in prison or secure hospitals – is a valid discussion for policy makers to have. Proper medical treatment of the incarcerated population is, of course, vital.

We are thankful for the increasingly good assessment tools that psychiatrists have available to them and feel they should be broadly used to evaluate inmates who commit violent crimes. We can certainly debate whether or not these offenders should be housed in hospitals or prisons (or prisons with good medical staff). And we can all certainly pray, hope, and work for treatments. The best we can do right now is to be much more aware and to translate that awareness into PREVENTION.

But since many of us have seen how dangerous they can be, first hand, we have little doubt of what science is already telling us.

Psychopaths exist. Psychopaths exist sometimes even during adolescence. Psychopaths are often incurable. Psychopaths are dangerous, probably for all of their lives.

This is not about blame. Mental illness has so many tragic aspects to it, especially illnesses as severe as we are talking about here. But there are very real questions of public safety that we must address as a society.


Antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) is a personality disorder. In order to be diagnosed with ASPD one must have displayed at least three of the following traits since age 15.

(1) failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest
(2) deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure
(3) impulsivity or failure to plan ahead
(4) irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults
(5) reckless disregard for safety of self or others
(6) consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations
(7) lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another.

There also must be evidence of conduct disorder before age 15.

Psychopathy and sociopathy are subsets of ASPD. But not everyone with ASPD can be placed in these sub-types. All psychopaths and sociopaths have ASPD but not all people with ASPD are psychopaths or sociopaths.

To be diagnosed with psychopathy one must score 30 or higher on the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R). There are 20 items on the checklist, and a subject is given a 0, 1, or 2 for each one, meaning there are 40 possible points. Examples of criminals who had high scores on the checklist are serial killers Ted Bundy, Paul Bernardo, and Clifford Olson.

The traits listed on the PCL-R include:

•  glib and superficial charm
•  grandiose (exaggeratedly high) estimation of self
•  need for stimulation
•  pathological lying
•  cunning and manipulativeness
•  lack of remorse or guilt
•  shallow affect (superficial emotional responsiveness)
•  callousness and lack of empathy
•  parasitic lifestyle
•  poor behavioral controls
•  sexual promiscuity
•  early behavior problems
•  lack of realistic long-term goals
•  impulsivity
•  irresponsibility
•  failure to accept responsibility for own actions
•  many short-term marital relationships
•  juvenile delinquency
•  revocation of conditional release
•  criminal versatility

Sociopathy is different than psychopathy. Whereas psychopathy is thought to be almost entirely genetic, sociopathy is believed to result from a mix of genetic and environmental factors. There are also differences in personality. Sociopaths are more easily agitated, erratic, impulsive, nervous, prone to emotional outbursts, and volatile. Psychopaths are less emotional, are better able to disassociate from their actions, and more “cold.” Sociopaths are able to empathize with and form attachments to some people. Psychopaths do not have these abilities at all and are unable to have compassion for anyone, even their own children.

In order to diagnose one with any of these conditions they must be a trained psychologist or psychiatrist. So while we do not want readers to “diagnose” teen killers as psychopaths over the Internet, we will point out that many of the juveniles who murdered our loved ones displayed many psychopathic traits.

Psychopathology and the Brain

New research provides the strongest evidence to date that psychopathy is linked to specific structural abnormalities in the brain. The study, led by researchers at King’s College London Institute of Psychiatry (IoP) is the first to confirm that psychopathy is a distinct neuro-developmental sub-group of anti-social personality disorder (ASPD).

The study was funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Biomedical Research Centre for Mental Healthat the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust and the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London and published in Archives of General Psychiatry.

Most violent crimes are committed by a small group of persistent male offenders with ASPD. Approximately half of male prisoners will meet diagnostic criteria for ASPD. The majority of such men are not true psychopaths (ASPD-P). They are characterized by emotional instability, impulsivity and high levels of mood and anxiety disorders. They typically use aggression in a reactive way in response to a perceived threat or sense of frustration.

However, about one third of such men will meet additional diagnostic criteria for psychopathy (ASPD+P). They are characterised by a lack of empathy and remorse, and use aggression in a planned way to secure what they want (status, money etc.). Previous research has shown that psychopaths’ brains differ structurally from healthy brains, but until now, none have examined these differences within a population of violent offenders with ASPD.

Dr Nigel Blackwood from the IoP at King’s and lead author of the study says:  ‘Using MRI scans we found that psychopaths had structural brain abnormalities in key areas of their ‘social brains’ compared to those who just had ASPD. This adds to behavioural and developmental evidence that psychopathy is an important subgroup of ASPD with a different neurobiological basis and different treatment needs’

‘There is a clear behavioural difference amongst those diagnosed with ASPD depending on whether or not they also have psychopathy. We describe those without psychopathy as ‘hot-headed’ and those with psychopathy as ‘cold-hearted’.  The ‘cold-hearted’ psychopathic group begin offending earlier, engage in a broader range and greater density of offending behaviours, and respond less well to treatment programmes in adulthood, compared to the  ‘hot-headed’ group. We now know that this behavioural difference corresponds to very specific structural brain abnormalities which underpin psychopathic behaviour, such as profound deficits in empathising with the distress of others.’

The researchers used Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to scan the brains of 44 violent adult male offenders diagnosed with Anti-Social Personality Disorder (ASPD). Crimes committed included murder, rape, attempted murder and grievous bodily harm.  Of these, 17 met the diagnosis for psychopathy (ASPD+P) and 27 did not (ASPD-P). They also scanned the brains of 22 healthy non-offenders.

The study found that ASPD+P offenders displayed significantly reduced grey matter volumes in the anterior rostral prefrontal cortex and temporal poles compared to ASPD-P offenders and healthy non-offenders. These areas are important in understanding other people’s emotions and intentions and are activated when people think about moral behaviour. Damage to these areas is associated with impaired empathising with other people, poor response to fear and distress and a lack of ‘self-conscious’ emotions such as guilt or embarrassment.

Dr Blackwood explains: ‘Identifying and diagnosing this sub-group of violent offenders with brain scans has important implications for treatment. Those without the syndrome of psychopathy, and the associated structural brain damage, will benefit from cognitive and behavioural treatments. Optimal treatment for the group of psychopaths is much less clear at this stage.’

The research was funded by research grants from the Department of Health, the Ministry of Justice, the Psychiatry Research Trust and the NIHR Biomedical Research Centre at the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust and the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London.

Psychopaths Are Not Neurally Equipped To Have Concern For Others

Prisoners who are psychopaths lack the basic neurophysiological “hardwiring” that enables them to care for others, according to a new study by neuroscientists at the University of Chicago and the University of New Mexico.

“A marked lack of empathy is a hallmark characteristic of individuals with psychopathy,” said the lead author of the study, Jean Decety, the Irving B. Harris Professor in Psychology and Psychiatry at UChicago. Psychopathy affects approximately 1 percent of the United States general population and 20 percent to 30 percent of the male and female U.S. prison population. Relative to non-psychopathic criminals, psychopaths are responsible for a disproportionate amount of repetitive crime and violence in society.

“This is the first time that neural processes associated with empathic processing have been directly examined in individuals with psychopathy, especially in response to the perception of other people in pain or distress,” he added.

The results of the study, which could help clinical psychologists design better treatment programs for psychopaths, are published in the article, “Brain Responses to Empathy-Eliciting Scenarios Involving Pain in Incarcerated Individuals with Psychopathy,” which appears online April 24 in the journalJAMA Psychiatry.

Joining Decety in the study were Laurie Skelly, a graduate student at UChicago; and Kent Kiehl, professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico.

For the study, the research team tested 80 prisoners between ages 18 and 50 at a correctional facility. The men volunteered for the test and were tested for levels of psychopathy using standard measures.

They were then studied with functional MRI technology, to determine their responses to a series of scenarios depicting people being intentionally hurt. They were also tested on their responses to seeing short videos of facial expressions showing pain.

The participants in the high psychopathy group exhibited significantly less activation in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, lateral orbitofrontal cortex, amygdala and periaqueductal gray parts of the brain, but more activity in the striatum and the insula when compared to control participants, the study found.

MEMO From Citizens Resource on Psychopathology

From: The desk of Muriel Schnierow
(all this research is the property of Muriel Schnierow, chief researcher and pro bono activist  – full credit must be given)

Citizens Resource is a group of citizens whose mission is to prevent violent crimes.

I have some urgent requests for changes in sentencing for violent crime.

We are seeing an increase in numbers of violent senseless crimes all over the country. The US prison population stands at 2.3 million 55% higher than the population of Russia under Stalin.

There are 2 types of offenders:

1. Those who can be rehabilitated and re -enter society; and,

2. Those who are incurable.

The latter includes those afflicted with Psychopathic Behavior Disorder. Little was known about this disorder before 4 decades ago when Dr. Herve Cleckley of the University of Georgia began his research which shocked and surprised the professional community and resulted in his seminal work-The Mask of Sanity.

It was concluded that psychopaths lack conscience and compassion and can commit heinous crimes without feeling anything. They can also appear very normal and sane.

Dr. Cleckley’s work was continued by Dr. Robert Hare of the University of British Columbia. He was working in a prison and noticed a difference in some inmates. They were manipulative and often hard to diagnose. His conclusions were in the form of a book Without Conscience which is also very well regarded.

He also developed a test, the Hare Psychopathic check list (R) which must be administered by a trained professional. [ED NOTE: Here is a link to the “Youth Version” of one of these testing devices]

Both researchers thought the number of Psychopaths was about 2% of the population.
Those inmates who can be rehabilitated should be. And it would be an excellent result if they could re enter society as productive citizens.

This is not possible with Psychopaths.

They are incurable and 1 psychopath can commit 20 crimes. Since there is only one physical study, and this one at the University of New Mexico, the crime is the best diagnosis. The study at University of New Mexico indicated that the brain scans of violent criminals showed the amygdala (the emotion center of the human brain) to be separated from the frontal lobe.

Still there would be no further proof needed than some of the crimes I will describe. They are beyond what the human mind can imagine.

The purpose of examining these crimes is not to spend time on the victims whom we of course value and  are more than worthy of our grief. It is to examine the perpetrators, and the system to see if the crime could have been prevented and to look for correctable errors  as this can be a life or death matter.

Muriel Schnierow
Oak Park, IL
Citizens Resource Director and CEO

Subject: Crimes and Prevention
(Note – these are examples of psychopaths, not necessarily teen killers)

1) Melanie Beltram-this 5 year old was beaten for all 5 the years of her life. She was burned, fed hot peppers, and finally relieved of her misery when her mother threw her against the wall with such force that her head went through it. There was not a part of her body that was not bruised and her siblings were encouraged to beat her as well. The day following the murder Mila Petrov had her 10th child. She was charged with murder and her common law husband who knew about the torture was given a lesser charge in return for his testimony. Mila Petrov should have had the death penalty or life without parole. She received 39 years because she “apologized”. (Illinois)

2) Christian Choate –the father of this 13 year old charmed the courts into awarding him custody. he put the child in a dog cage, beat him mercilessly when he took him out, fed him dog food, and when he died at 28 lbs. buried him and took the sister to Kentucky where some one turned him in. He is on trial. His abuse was known. (Indiana)

3) By the time the 5 year old was found he had been beaten, burned with a glue gun, sodomized, starved, taunted and punched, forced to eat soap, and the Family Service had been in the year before and found that nothing was wrong.(California)

4) 19 hour torture/rape of a 23 year old college student in Manhattan,by Robert Williams (Pri 4 id#00446099. She was raped, sodomized, forced to perform oral sex, burned with bleach and boiling water, and he slit her eyelids. Williams had been improperly sentenced to 8 years for attempted murder by judge Harold Rothwax(deceased) thinking 8 years was the maximum. It is the minimum and 25-life is the maximum. Williams was currently sentenced to 422 years. The victim cannot be found by public inquiry. New York

5) Jaycee Dugard was kidnapped at 11 yrs by Phillip Garrido who had been sentenced to 50 years for violent rape in Nevada. He got out somehow but the parole board is said to be “deceased”. Garrido took the girl to CA, kept her in a tent in the backyard as a sex slave, and Garrido on a monitor was visited by a social worker who” forgot “to look in the back yard. It took 18 years to find Jaycee. Garrido has been sentenced to 400 years and the State of CA gave Jaycee $20 million dollars. California

6) In 1965 a girl named Sylvia Likens was tortured to death by a woman she was boarding with. The other children and neighbors beat her too. I am including this because it is considered the worst case in American History. No reforms resulted. There were over 150  burns on her body, a knife cut scrawling words, proof of endless beatings, skin missing from her head, and the perpetrator, Gertrude Banischevsky did not get life without parole or the death sentence because she said she was sorry. People still bring flowers and candles to the scene of her death and the house of horrors was torn down. This crime has not been forgotten by the people of Indiana.

7) A few years  ago a 17 year old high school student who had shown some violent tendencies was referred to a mental institution for treatment after some violent offenses (setting a girl’s sweater on fire in school, trying to poison his parents). The staff knew he was psychopathic.  His name was David Biro. He asked if he could go to dinner with his parents who were apparently unaware of the danger he presented, refused to return, stole a gun, broke into the home of a young couple and shot them to death. The wife was pregnant which did not deter him. He aimed for and hit the fetus and exploded it as she begged for her baby’s life. He was given life without parole. (Illinois)

8)Columbine:  The famous school shooting at Columbine was covered thoroughly in Dave Cullen’s well researched work, Columbine which took him 10 years to write. The shooter, Eric Harris, had been in trouble and the term psychopath was used by authorities. His companion, Dylan Kliebold ,was depressed, suicidal and a follower.

There were signs but no follow through and the rest is History. After the tragedy there was a meeting and Dr. Hare was included. It was concluded that yes Harris was a psychopath and there were signs of impending violence. The book offers interesting insights, especially in chapters 40-42.(Colorado)

The above cases are for the purpose of identifying ways of prevention.

Muriel Schnierow
[email protected]
Citizens Resource (Dir)