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  • Writer's pictureD. P. Lyle

Criminal Mischief: Episode #55: Victimology



The perpetrator isn’t the only one profiled. Evaluating the victim can add to the offender profile and might offer valuable information to narrow the search for the killer. The study of victim characteristics, called victimology, is basically an assessment of the person’s risk of becoming a victim as a result of his personal, professional, and social life. A detailed understanding of the victim’s lifestyle and habits provides clues as to why this particular victim was selected at this location and time. This information can divide victims into high-, medium-, and low-risk.

High-risk victims are those who are frequently in high-risk situations. Prostitutes, particularly those who “walk the streets,” obviously fall into this category. They typically work at night, interact with strangers on a regular basis, willingly get into cars with strangers, and, in short, are easy targets. Other high-risk behaviors include drug use, a promiscuous lifestyle, nighttime employment, and associating with people who possess criminal personalities.

Low-risk victims are those who stay close to work and home, don’t visit areas unfamiliar to them, have a steady job and many friends, don’t use drugs, and lock their doors at night.

Medium-risk victims fall between these two.

Why the offender selects a particular victim is determined by both the perpetrator’s fantasy needs and the victim’s vulnerability. Some victims are merely grabbed as a victim of opportunity. High-risk victims place themselves in vulnerable positions much more often than do low-risk victims, but either could simply be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Other victims are taken because they fit the starring role in the perpetrator’s fantasy. The offender might spend days or weeks “cruising” for just the right victim, the one who most closely matches his fantasy. He ignores other potentially easy victims because they are not “right.”

A special form of victim profiling is the psychological autopsy. It is per- formed when the manner of a victim’s death is not clear. Was the victim’s death an accident, suicide, or homicide? To help make this determination, the forensic psychiatrist will look into the victim’s medical, school, work, and military history; interview family, friends, and associates; and evaluate autopsy, police, and witness reports. The goal is to assess whether the victim was in a stressful enough situation and the type of person to take his own life. Or was his lifestyle such that he was an easy target for a killer?

Geographic Profiling

In nature shows on television, the narrators often discuss a certain predator’s domain or hunting range. Game wardens use these boundaries to narrow their search for an elusive lion or tiger. Profilers do the same with serial killers.

An analysis of the pattern of the perpetrator’s assaults can yield valuable information that might ultimately lead to his apprehension. This analysis is known as geographic profiling. It is based on the premise that serial offenders, like lions and tigers, have a certain “comfort zone” within which they feel free to carry out their crimes. The geographic profiler would like to know where the victim was abducted, where the actual assault or murder took place, and where the body was dumped. If several assaults have occurred, the profiler has several such locations to work with. He can then locate these points on a map and define the killer’s domain.

This might show that the murders are clustered in a small area, which would indicate that the killer is not very mobile and might not possess a car or have a job. Or the range could be broad, indicating that the perpetrator is highly mobile and may possess a vehicle with high mileage that he uses to troll for victims. Whether the range is narrow or broad, the perpetrator likely resides or works within or near this comfort zone.

It is important for investigators to determine which victim was killed first. This is often straightforward if the victims are found shortly after the crime. But, if the victims are street dwellers or prostitutes, whose disappearance might go unnoticed, the date of their abduction might not be known. And if the bodies are dumped in remote places, the order in which the victims were killed might not be the order in which the bodies are found. In such cases, a forensic anthropologist is brought in to assess the approximate time of death (see Chapter Five: Time of Death). Why is this important? The comfort zone for most serial killers usually begins small and grows with each killing. This means that the first victim was probably abducted close to the killer’s home or workplace, and this knowledge can be crucial to identifying the killer.

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