Roadmap to Murder: predicting who will kill in 2017 and beyond

December 20, 2017 Predicting violence remains something of a forensic uncertainty.  It is highly unlikely that law enforcement will be able to identify the next episode of terminal rage before it occurs in spite of updated behavioral health analysis. As we have learned the presence of substance abuse must be factored whenever behavioral health is being analyzed for future violent proclivities and pinpointing those who “might go off” and commit mass murder.

When it comes down to reliability of predicting violence the best predictor is a past history of violence.  The Texas Sutherland Springs church massacre in early November 2017 is likely the result of a history of a “domestic situation” and rage associated with a failing marriage that Devin Patrick Kelley, 26 could not bear.  In the case of Mr. Kelley the USAF failed to notify the FBI about Kelley’s history of domestic violence which allowed him to purchase the AR-15 he used in the Sutherland Springs killings. Since this post was first published there have been multiple mass murders including Corning, California, Sutherland Springs, Texas, Las Vegas, Nevada, Saint Paul, Minnesota, Houston, Texas, Pedro, Ohio, Madison, Maine, Bouge Chitto, Mississippi, Topeka, Kansas, and Fort Lauderdale, Florida. And these were only cases with four or more fatalities.  There were scores of mass killings with fewer than 4 fatalities

In another post first published in late 2013, pre-incident indicators for domestic violence homicide (DVH) were introduced as a possible roadmap in making predictions for violence.  These were nothing new and hold true today in terms of the manipulation and control exhibited by habitual abusers as defined by Walker and many others. While the capacity to predict who will kill their intimate partner remains somewhat unclear those who intimidate with weapons and repeatedly violate court orders must be considered at high risk for DVH and held without bail. During this period of confinement a formal dangerousness evaluation is essential. Decisions about prosecution must be based on the totality of the circumstances not solely on the wishes of the victim – especially when the lives of children have been threatened.

Recently, at least 2 shooters have survived mass killings or have been captured after their alleged attacks.  In 2012 in Aurora, CO movie theater James Holmes was arrested and charged with multiple counts of murder.  He has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.  In 2011, Jared Lee Loughner was arrested at an outdoor political event in Tuscon, AZ after the shooting of U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords and killing 6 others. Loughner plead guilty after being found that he was capable of standing trial. He is serving 140 years in prison. There is a growing body of knowledge that comes from those few mass murderers who survive their killings.  Most mass murders take their own lives when confronted by police or someone who attempts to put an end to their violent threat.

In the most despicable cases of domestic violence homicide (DVH) women were murdered while a child looked on (Sefton, 2016). At some point the judiciary and lawmakers will catch up to the robust body of literature on the cycle of violence.  In spite of have no convictions, the abuser’s history of criminal threatening must result in a comprehensive dangerousness evaluation regardless whether the victim wishes to press charges or not. During my service as a police officer I have had cases in which as many as 3 women have had protective orders in place against the same abuser at the same time. If the victim is able to move on from the abusive relationship the abuser will move on too and abuse another domestic partner and her children.


“There is no single road map to understanding the complexity of human behavior in general and homicide in particular. If there were the rate of domestic violence homicide might be reduced to zero. Unfortunately behavioral analysis as a science has not evolved into a reliable enough predictor of murder and cannot envisage a time when terminal rage might be unleashed, according to Michael Sefton, Ph.D. (2013)

The psychological autopsy is the study of individual cases that uncovers both unique details about the pre-incident behaviors known as red flags as well as common variables that may be studied. It is an assessment of the timeline of disparate behaviors that may have signaled impending violence.  The application of this information can identify commonalities among cases of domestic violence and those behaviors that are most predictive of DVH. In these cases police and social service agencies might have justification for early stopping and when necessary containment of high risk abusers.

Allanach, R.A., Gagan, B.F., Loughlin, J., Sefton, M.S., (2011). The Psychological Autopsy of the Dexter, Maine Domestic Violence Homicide and Suicide. Presented to the Domestic Violence Review Board, November 11, 2011

Link to publication

Sefton, M. (2013) Roadmap to Violence.  Blog post: Taken December 9, 2017

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