The Role of Psychopathy in Horrific Crimes


Two women meet, fall in love and become one of the first gay couples to legally marry only to have their lives shattered when they are sexually attacked in their home and one of them is viciously murdered. Incredibly, the survivor in this true life crime story forgives the rapist/murderer. And yes, that man has a mental illness.

The book’s publisher sent me a pre-publication copy of this story because he hoped I would write a “blurb” — one of those gushing quotes printed on book covers to lure buyers. Although the writer did an excellent job explaining how deinstitutionalization and a lack of community mental health services have led to our jails and prisons becoming defacto mental asylums, I declined.

Book blurbs are one or two sentences and I couldn’t write an endorsement in twenty words that explained the perpetrator in this book was not typical. Most persons with mental illnesses are not dangerous. They are not rapists and murderers. They are more likely to be victims rather than committers of crimes.

Yet, here was an example of a mentally disturbed man who was very dangerous and very violent. How do we explain his actions?

 I suspect the public has an equally difficult time believing the notion that persons with mental illnesses are no more violent than anyone else when they watch newscasts about mass shootings at the Virginia Tech campus, Tucson, Aurora, Newtown and the Washington Navy Yard. The knee-jerk reaction is that a person must be mentally ill to commit these mass killings, ergo all persons with mental illnesses are clearly dangerous.

Mental health advocates challenge that assumption with statistics each time there is a shooting. In a guest editorial published recently in the Albany Telegraph Union, advocate Tom Templeton cites a study of mass shootings that found only 11 percent of mass shootings between 2009 and 2015 involved gunmen suspected of having mental health problems. Overall, only about 5% of violent crime is committed by people diagnosed with serious mental health conditions, and data shows that these individuals actually use fewer guns than the general public and are in fact 11 times more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators, according to Templeton.

The Treatment Advocacy Center brings a different twist to this debate in a study that supports its call for Assisted Outpatient Treatment. It agrees that the majority of individuals with mental illnesses are not violent and are more likely to be victims, but it claims that a subset of severely mentally ill individuals who are untreated are, in fact, more prone to violence.

 …a small number of individuals with serious mental illnesses commit acts of violence. Almost all these acts of violence are committed by individuals who are not being treated, and many such individuals are also abusing alcohol or drugs… Psychosis “was significantly associated with a 49%–68% increase in the odds of violence.”

Is there a part of this discussion about violence and mass shootings that is being missed? What about psychopathy? I am a great admirer of Andrew Solomon whose most recent book is Far From The Tree, a spellbinding look at the challenges faced by parents of children with intellectual disabilities and mental disorders. Writing recently in The New York Times, Solomon discussed violence and autism after several commentators claimed children on the autism spectrum were more likely to kill than others. In The Myth of the ‘Autistic Shooter,’ he noted:

The biggest challenge in cases where autism and psychopathy exist simultaneously is that the former is usually diagnosed and the latter is not, and parents who have received a diagnosis for their child tend to assign everything to autism…It’s very reassuring to have an explanation for acts of horror. If killings like this are mostly undertaken by people with autism, the thinking goes, and your children and their friends don’t have it, then you are safe. Each of the Republican candidates for the presidency declared last week that we should deal with school shooting by providing aggressive treatment of people with mental illness — not to alleviate the suffering of the mentally ill, but to protect other people from the mentally ill. Unfortunately, psychopaths are often secretive, and we don’t have a psychopathy biomarker…What we can say for sure is that stigmatizing people with conditions such as autism will not reduce gun violence; it will only amplify non-autistic people’s lack of ease with autistic people. Who comes up short on empathy in that scenario?

Which brings me back to why I turned down the request to write that favorable blurb. To me, the rapist/murderer was either a psychopath or sociopath, in addition to having a mental illness, either bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Psychopathy and sociopathy are listed in the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), released by the American Psychiatric Association as Antisocial Personality Disorders (ASPD).

I believe psychopathy is rare even among the prisoners with mental illnesses who I encountered in the Miami Dade County jail where I did my reporting. They were in jail because of crimes clearly tied to delusions caused by their mental disorders.  Almost all of them had been arrested because of nuisance crimes, such as trespassing. None of the individuals who I followed for ten months after they were released from jail exhibited anti-social behavior. It was society that wanted nothing to do with them.

Realizing that bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and depression can exist simultaneously in rare cases with psychopathy helped me better understand the incongruity that we often see when some horrific acts happen, as in the rape/murder case. Simply put, you can have bipolar disorder and also be a bank robber but that doesn’t mean the two are related. As Solomon noted, it is easy to assume in these cases that it is the diagnosed mental disorder that explains the crime when the hidden pathology is actually the source. It is equally important to note, as he did, that just as there is no proven link between autism and psychopathy, there is no proven link between psychopathy and bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.