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Forensic Psychology: Zodiac Killer Case Essay

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Updated: Aug 27th, 2020

Serial killers have long garnered the attention of criminologists and forensic psychologists interested in understanding the motives behind their behavior and the means through which they kill their victims (Harrison, Murphy, Ho, Bowers, & Flaherty, 2015). The Zodiac killer, for example, has continued to interest researchers long after the serial killer terrorized California in the late 1960s and early 1970s (Haugen, 2010), going further to taunt law enforcement agencies for their inability to decode the messages sent in order to expose his identity (Culhane, Hilstad, Freng, & Gray, 2011; Graysmith, 2006). By looking at the subject matter of the Zodiac Killer, the present paper aims to identify important characteristics related to serial killers and how the domain of forensic psychology could be applied to solve cases involving serial killers.

Difference between the Zodiac Killer and a Normal Homicide Suspect

To understand some of the characteristics that could have motivated the Zodiac killer to sustain the killings, it is important to evaluate how this serial killer was different from a normal homicide suspect. Available literature demonstrates that, unlike a normal homicide suspect whose only criminal culpability may be to kill one person in a fit of range, a serial killer such as the Zodiac is accused of killing multiple victims (2 to 10, with a modal value of 3) in a carefully choreographed setting that appears fueled by particular motives. Additionally, unlike a normal homicide suspect who may have highly personal and retaliatory motivations for killing, the Zodiac killer most likely stalked and targeted complete strangers who somehow fulfilled his secret fantasies (Harrison et al., 2015; Logan et al., 2008). Here, it is important to note that most homicide perpetrators know their victims and frequently target family members or romantic partners, while serial killers are known to stalk and target total strangers with the view to fulfilling deranged and clandestine fantasies that only they understand (Bartol & Bartol, 2016).

Several additional characteristics differentiate serial killers such as the Zodiac from normal homicide perpetrators. For example, unlike a normal homicide suspect who may kill spontaneously or instinctively, a serial killer such as the Zodiac takes time to plan the killings and has an emotional cooling off period between murders to prove that the multiple victims were not slaughtered in a single fit of rage (Bartol & Bartol, 2016; Culhane et al., 2011). Additionally, unlike a normal homicide suspect who may kill exclusively for economic/political gain or due to intimate partner conflicts, the Zodiac killer was largely driven by long-term and deep seated fantasies to unemotionally kill victims who were unrelated to him (Culhane et al., 2011; Harrison et al., 2015).

Criteria for Choosing Victims

Although no one knows for sure the criteria used by the Zodiac killer to select his victims, the reason given by most incarcerated serial killers for murdering other people is that they wanted to quench their disjointed fantasies by taking complete dominance over another individual (Culhane et al., 2011). This particular reason shows that serial killers such as the Zodiac killer often select complete strangers since they do not have anything personal against the victim and are merely driven by a raw desire to satisfy their deranged and often secret fantasies (Bartol & Bartol, 2016). To demonstrate complete dominance over their victims, the Zodiac killer must have carefully selected victims who were vulnerable to him in some way. This criteria is reinforced by the fact that most serial killers select vulnerable victims (e.g., a man selecting young or elderly women) in order to achieve a misplaced feeling of superiority (Harrison et al., 2015). Additionally, it has been documented that most serial killers use race, gender, physical characteristics, or other easily recognizable characteristics to select their ideal victims for murder (Haugen, 2010). Overall, vulnerability is critical to choosing a victim, as serial killers want to be sure that the chances of succeeding in killing the victim are high.

Application of Forensic Psychology in the Case

In the Zodiac’s case, forensic psychologists had the role of investigating what could have inspired the serial killer to kill, as this would have set the stage for understanding the motives behind the murders (Haugen, 2010). Another input of forensic psychology in the Zodiac’s case is to attempt to apply psychological knowledge to understand why the serial killer engaged in criminal activities and what legal concerns existed to solve the murders. Additionally, since the Zodiac killer used encrypted or coded messages as well as the signs of the Zodiac to communicate his intentions, it would have been prudent for investigators to apply the concepts of clinical and/or psychological assessment and evaluation to the known traits of the Zodiac (e.g., repeated use of encrypted messages and taunting the police with plans to kill more people) and also to interview other people with the view to developing a deeper understanding of the threats posed by the Zodiac and how he could have been apprehended. At a much broader level, the domain of forensic psychology could have been applied to investigate what cognitive and/or social psychological factors came into play to provide an enabling framework for the Zodiac to derive raw satisfaction in killing people (Bartol & Bartol, 2016).

Why the Zodiac Killer was Never Captured

In my view, a number of factors came into play to ensure that the Zodiac killer was never captured. The first factor deals with the use of primitive forensic technology, where it is argued that the serial killer was able to circumvent justice by using loopholes facilitated by the poor state of forensic technology that was prevalent at that time. The second factor revolves around the investigative role of law enforcement agencies, where it is argued that the police performed dismally in investigating the killer and connecting the dots, possibly due to the poor state of forensic psychology prevalent at that time. Lastly, it is possible that the Zodiac killer was never captured due to failure by law enforcement agencies to collaborate or work together during the investigative phase.

Capturing the Killer

To capture the killer, it is important for law enforcement agencies to develop the needed capacity to crack the symbols used in the various letters dispatched by the Zodiac killer to the police and newsrooms. Specifically, it is important for the relevant stakeholders to the case to employ forensic psychologists and other professionals to solve the coded messages used in the letters by the murderer through forensic laboratory analysis (Warf & Waddell, 2002).

Conclusion

This paper has looked into the subject matter of the Zodiac killer with the view to identifying important characteristics related to serial killers and understanding how the domain of forensic psychology could be applied to solve cases involving serial killers. A discussion of the difference between the Zodiac killer and a normal homicide suspect reveals important characteristics of serial killers, such as killing multiple victims, targeting complete strangers, desire to fulfill deranged and secret fantasies, propensity to undertake a cooling off period, and motive. A discussion on how the Zodiac killer chose his victims underscores other important characteristics of serial killers, including the desire to assume complete control over other individuals, the propensity to target victims based on their vulnerability, and the use of race, gender, and physical characteristics to identify potential victims. Overall, it is evident that the domain of forensic psychology could have been applied to the case to investigate the motives, apply psychological knowledge to understand why the Zodiac killer engaged in criminal activities, and use the concepts of psychological assessment and laboratory analysis to understand the encrypted messages sent by the serial killer.

References

Bartol, C.R., & Bartol, A.M. (2016). Current perspectives in forensic psychology and criminal behavior (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications.

Culhane, S.E., Hilstad, S.M., Freng, A., & Gray, M.J. (2011). Self-reported psychopathology in a convicted serial killer. Journal of Investigative Psychology & Offender Profiling, 8(1), 1-21. Web.

Graysmith, R. (2006). Zodiac unmasked: The identity of America’s most elusive serial killer revealed. California: Berkeley Publishers.

Harrison, M.A., Murphy, E.A., Ho, L.Y., Bowers, T.G., & Flaherty, C.V. (2015). Female serial killers in the United States: Means, motives, and makings. Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 26, 383-406. Web.

Logan, J., Hill, H.A., Black, M.L., Crosby, A.E., Karch, D.L., Barnes, J.D., & Lubell, K.M. (2008). Characteristics of perpetrators in homicide-followed-by-suicide incidents: National violent death reporting system – 17 US states, 2003-2005. American Journal of Epidemiology, 168, 1056-1064. Web.

Haugen, B. (2010). The Zodiac killer: Terror and mystery. London, United Kingdom: Compass Point Publishers.

Warf, B., & Waddell, C. (2002). Heinous spaces, perfidious places: The sinister landscape of serial killers. Social & Cultural Geography, 3, 323-345. Web.

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