The Importance of Stories From Suicide Survivors

One of my favorite articles was written by Scott Anderson and published in the New York Times Magazine in 2008 called “The Urge To End It All.” It discussed, among other things, researchers who study people who attempted suicide and who have survived and several survivors themselves. In virtually every one of these cases, the people who survived were thankful. They lived to witness the positive changes in their lives. Their lives did get better.

One of the reasons why the stories are so important is because too many people don’t realize that their lives can get better. They develop a sort of tunnel vision about the course of their lives leading them to believe that it won’t improve and that suicide is the answer. Most mental health problems are highly treatable. People need to know that their problems are solvable and the stories of suicide survivors are proof of this. Counseling is a great place to start.

Recently I received another story from an individual who survived a suicide in her youth. She gave me permission to post it on my website so that other people can see that there is hope even during turbulent times. You can read that story, titled August 2016: Kathy’s Silent Cry For Help: A Painfully True Story, here. Thank you, Kathy!

Your survival stories can make a difference. 

The Most Gruesome Killer You’ve Never Heard About

I think I’ve found one of the worst killers in history.

**Trigger warning**

The following material is extremely graphic.

About the case:

“A 26-year-old Polish man killed his father by multiple puncture wounds to the chest and neck using a sharpened screwdriver. He lured his father into the cellar and, before inflicting the fatal strokes, he tried in vain to electrocute him using a stun gun. After this he hung his father by his legs in a cellar window and decapitated him using a surgical scalpel and shovel. Additionally, he made deep incisions across the popliteal fosse to bleed the corpse and collected the blood from the cervical stump vessels in a bucket.

He then took the separated head and neck upstairs to his room and scalped it through the whole night. Afterward, he threw the head into the garden. Next, using a thread he sutured together the soft tissues of the head, additionally trying to repair them with a prosthetic plastic mass. He then dried the skull using salt, thus preventing putrefaction. Subsequently, he placed the scalp-mask over his head, previously shaved and layered with stick tape. He put on his father’s clothes, hat, glasses, and scarf and left home to sit on a bench. When his grandfather came by, he started a conversation with him pretending to be the father. The grandfather did not recognize him and was sure that he was talking with his son. After a while they even had breakfast together. Finally, the grandfather, surprised by the unnatural voice of his “son” and suspicious of his interlocutor, went into the cellar where he found the body and departed for neighbor’s house to call the police. The grandson, finding that the crime had come to light, left home, taking garments his father wore on the day of his death and found a hiding place nearby. He observed the scene and investigation carried out by the police. He then sat on a bus stop bench, where he was later arrested.”

The authors were only able to find a few cases where perpetrators used the skin or organs of their victims. These included Ed Gein and Jeffrey Dahmer.

They also noted that during World War II, the Nazis skinned murdered concentration camp prisoners.

At trial, the perpetrator testified that the murder was to be “a work of art, illustrating extreme human meanness” and “an act with no holds barred.”

He had modeled his crime from a killer in the movie Seven.

He wore the scalp-mask on his head to see whether his grandfather could recognize him.

He hanged the decapitated body in a position with the lower limbs up to symbolize crucifixion on “an upturned cross” because “the head of this kind of scoundrel should not hang even on a devil’s cross.”

There was no discussion about whether or not the killer was declared legally insane.

Psychiatrists diagnosed the killer with “borderline” schizoid personality. Schizoid personality disorders are characterized by difficulty expressing emotions, detachment from social relationships and a lack of desire for intimacy.

People with schizoid personality disorders are often considered loners. They also have unusual perceptions. They might see objects or shadows that aren’t there and they are superstitious. It is similar to schizophrenia but not as severe.

This is one of the most bizarre cases I’ve ever read about. It is the stuff of horror movies.

Source: Kunz, J., & Cross, A. (2001). Victim’s scalp on the killer’s head: An unusual case of criminal postmortem mutilation. The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, 22 (3), 327-331.

Interested In A Career In Criminal Justice? Some Career Advice

finger printMaybe you’re one of those people who loves Law and Order or Criminal Minds or CSI, and the like. If you’re like a lot of people, you love those shows and want to know how you can get started in one of those careers.

And don’t forget the FBI. Everyone wants to work for them.

But how do you get those jobs?

The answer is, it’s not always easy and it often requires a lot of training, hard work and persistence.

Many CSI-like jobs require a degree in science. This is especially true if you want to work in a lab. If you’re taking the route of earning a college degree, you would want to focus on biochemistry or biology as your major.

Check to see if your college has a specific track for people interested in forensic science. Some schools offer programs in which you can start an undergraduate degree in biochemistry or biology and ultimately work towards a Masters degree in forensic science.

Not everyone with a CSI-type of job has a college degree. Some people start their CSI work in law enforcement and through training in the department, become crime scene technicians. They might have some college training or no college training at all.

Many people think that to work for the FBI, you need a criminology or psychology or criminal justice degree but that’s not necessarily the case. People with those types of degrees might be considered eligible to work for the FBI under the “diversified” category but they are primarily recruiting people with specific, critical skills and experience. These include: accounting, finance, computer science, foreign language, intelligence experience, law enforcement/investigative experience, military and physical science.

Applicants for the Special Agent position, generally must have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in one of the aforementioned fields.

Cyber crime has more recently become a major focus of the FBI. In December 2014, the FBI was specifically recruiting “technical talent, including computer scientists, IT specialists and engineers.”

If you’re interested in working in the criminal justice system, you might consider attending the police academy. Police academies are specialized schools that certify people to become law enforcement officers. Tuition is about $5,000 and completing the program can take anywhere from six to eight months. The cost and the length of time to completion varies, depending on your location. Some police agencies require at least some college credits, as well as having completed the police academy.

If you have earned an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or criminology, this does not qualify you to become a law enforcement officer. You would still have to complete the police academy.

There are other ways to work in the criminal justice system besides being a police officer. Earning a degree in social work, for instance, can prepare you to work in the court system as a mitigation specialist, Guardian ad litem, or parole or probation officer, or as an advocate in some capacity.

There are more mentally ill people housed in jails and prisons than in psychiatric hospitals. There’s no shortage of work for social workers, and others with similar training, in the criminal justice system.

Finally, I’ve noticed that many students are so focused on working for the FBI that they overlook many other prestigious and interesting job opportunities. Working for the FBI is very rewarding but you should also consider the many other federal, state and local agencies to work for, including (but not limited to): Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF), Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Postal Inspectors Office, Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and so forth.

Be open to all potential opportunities and don’t limit yourself.

We Need a Prison System More Like Norway’s

There are vast differences between the United States and Scandinavian prison systems. Take Norway for example. Norway’s incarceration rate is 75 people per 100,000; approximately 3,842 prisoners in the entire country.

That’s mighty low compared to the United States, whose rate is 707 people per 100,000, or 2,228,424 people behind bars.

Norway has no death penalty, no life sentences. Even their worst offender, Anders Behring Breivik, the man responsible for perhaps the largest mass shooting in the world (he killed 77 people and injured hundreds more), might only serve a maximum sentence of 21 years.

Core philosophies about the purpose of prison are vastly different. In America, prison is about retribution. In Scandinavian countries, the focus is on normalization.

In Norway, yearly meetings about prison policy are held in the mountains and prisoners are regularly invited. Prisons in America are inhumane, violent and degrading. Prisoners don’t have a say in prison policy.

In Norway, health care is provided through community facilities rather than prison services. They don’t privatize their prison services, unlike in the United States, where private companies are greatly expanding their reach.

Norwegian prison officials receive two years of training with an emphasis on the value of treating inmates humanely. In the United States, prison officials receive minimal training and humane treatment is not the norm. They tend to be harsh, unforgiving and militaristic.

Prison conditions in Norway are relaxed. That is certainly not true in US prisons where violence is common. Being a prison official is anything but relaxed. It is a dangerous job.

Batroy prison in Norway has an open prison system. It’s built on an island in the mountains. 100 inmates live in the prison with no walls or fences anywhere. Their goal is to provide prisoners with the cognitive and social skills in order to develop a sense of responsibility for their actions. Inmates work with knives, saws and axes, anything they need to do their work. They are trusted by the prison officials. There is even a guesthouse where prisoners can stay with their families for a weekend.

See the stark differences between the two countries in this video in which Retired superintendent James Conway, a 38-year veteran of the Attica Correctional Facility in New York, tours Halden Prison. He is in for quite a shock.

You can read more about Halden Prison in the New York Times. The article features a great Dostoyevsky quote: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

They must be doing something right: Norway’s recidivism rate is about 20%; The United States: about 68%.

Obviously there are dangerous prisoners who should never be granted certain freedoms; especially those who have no chance of ever leaving prison (I am referring to the Tommy Lynn Sells and Jodi Arias’s of the world) but 97% of prisoners will eventually be released. Shouldn’t we want them more “normalized” and thus able to function and reintegrate back into society? Could it be as simple as helping them, giving them education and access to services and skills to find work?

It could be. It was that kind of simple idea from Sam Tsemberis that has “all but solved” chronic homelessness.

We have a lot to learn from Norway.

Scholarly Reference: Pratt, J. (2008). Scandinavian exceptionalism and an era of penal access. British Journal of Criminology, 48, 119-137. doi: 10.1093/bjc/azm072

Mental Health & Crime On The Net

Hung Jury For Jodi Arias Sentencing Retrial

Message Board

The message board was damaged and I have spent the day trying to fix it. I am doing my best to preserve the board. I will have it up and running as soon as possible. I appreciate your patience.

Update: I spent many hours trying to save the old board to no avail. I was sad to see all your posts go. The new board is up and running. It’s rudimentary at this time but I will continue develop it and make it better. I find great value in your discussions and hope you will re-register. Thanks so much for your patience.

Saturday’s Best Reads, Via Twitter

The Stories I Am Reading, In Tweets

The Jodi Arias Sentencing Trial Continues

Hang in there. It won’t last forever.

According to reports, the trial will end in February but I am holding off on any analysis of the case until I can view the courtroom video testimony.

In the meantime, want to discuss the trial? Head over to the message board where there are in-depth and intelligent discussions going on about the case.

Below are some recent pictures from the courtroom.

Should We Execute The Mentally Ill? Scott Panetti, The Death Penalty & Mental Illness

Scott Panetti is a mentally ill, death row inmate in the state of Texas. He has long been diagnosed with schizophrenia and is scheduled to be executed on December 3, 2014. He will be the 10th and perhaps the final Texas inmate to be executed this year.

Mr. Panetti has a long history of serious mental illness. He is profoundly mentally ill and is among the sickest persons to be executed in modern times. Before killing his parents-in-law, he was hospitalized 14 times. Evidence of schizophrenia began in his teen years.

He represented himself at trial and did so while under the control of a hallucinatory figure named “Sarge.” He dressed in a purple cowboy suit and rambled incoherently throughout the trial. He attempted to subpoena hundreds of people, including the Pope and Jesus Christ. His behavior frightened the jurors.

There is no doubt that Mr. Panetti should be held accountable for murdering two people.

If you believe that it is possible for anyone to be mentally ill then there will be no doubt in your mind that Mr. Panetti is mentally ill. Long before murdering his parents-in-law he was hospitalized 14 times. First of all, if you are familiar with the American mental health system you know that it is difficult to get hospitalized even once. Many people who should be hospitalized and whose families and loved ones have tried desperately to get them hospitalized have failed to be hospitalized. A significant number of these people have gone on to murder or commit suicide, or both. When you have achieved a record of 14 hospitalizations, you can be pretty sure that you are mentally ill.

That’s the background and now here’s the question. Should we kill mentally ill people? I suppose you could correctly say there is an even more basic question, which would be, should we give the state the power to execute anyone?

And that’s when it gets complicated. That’s when we talk about the fact that we are the last large democracy in the world that executes its citizens. They don’t do it in Scotland, Ireland, England, Italy, France, Germany, etc., etc.

Those countries are our allies and friends. Many of our families have at some point emigrated from one of those countries. Many of us are very proud of our ancestry. We are Irish-Americans or Italian-Americans, etc. Those countries used to execute their citizens but now they are very much against it. They won’t even release a prisoner to the United States unless we promise not impose the death penalty.

Your relatives and countries of origin, just don’t believe in execution anymore. In fact they are very much against any execution for any reason (it may be wise not to bring up this topic at future family reunions).

It is our traditional “enemies,” those countries around the world who are our political opposites, who continue just as we do to execute its citizens.

If I were to write a thorough analysis of the death penalty, honestly it would take me thousands of pages. It is surely worth writing about but this is not the time or place. I mention the above simply to prove the point and acknowledge the fact that this is an exceedingly difficult topic.

Forget the issue of the death penalty in general.

Let’s keep it simple. Is it right, to execute a mentally ill individual?

Let’s make it even simpler. Let’s move to the lowest man-in-the-street level. Is it right to execute a man who is as nutty as a fruitcake?

Let’s also forget big but meaningful words like “schizophrenia” and “psychotic.” Let’s just talk about it from the perspective of your uncle Bob, who might sum up Mr. Panetti’s condition by simply saying “the guy ain’t all there.”

With a psychotic person, he’s just not “not all there,” he’s not there at all. Really. He is living in a fantasy world and by definition has lost the ability to know what is real and what is not real.

That’s the question. Do we kill mentally ill people? I know it begs the question, should America execute its own citizens, legally guilty of course, but still its own citizens.

We need to think about that. We need to form an opinion and voice an opinion. And that opinion had better be correct, lest you be judged.

I seem to remember reading someplace, someplace really important, advice from an appearingly, supremely knowledgeable source. It came in a list of similar declarative warnings.

It seemed more than a suggestion and more than mere advice. It was stronger than a warning and very clear.

“Thou shall not kill.’

Hey, I’m not pretending to speak for God. I’m just wondering if executing a mentally ill man falls under that admonishment.

Where I’ve Been: An Update

As many of you know, the Jodi Arias sentencing trial is in full swing.

I have been carefully following many of the very competent reporters who are live in the courtroom. I have not been writing about the case because I want to be able to watch it for myself after the verdict.

At that time, I plan to dissect and analyze the psychological aspects of the trial just as I had done during the first trial.

Yes, by then it might be “old news” but I believe it is still worth dissecting.

There were many interesting complexities during the first trial and a great deal to learn.

I believe the same will be true of the sentencing trial.

As you are following the trial from the vantage point of the reporters tweeting from the courtroom, let me know if there is anything of particular interest that you would like me to write about. If so, let me know in the comment section, on the discussion board or via Facebook or Twitter.

I will keep track of your comments and/or suggestions for when I review the sentencing tapes after the verdict.

Hopefully that will be sometime before 2015, but with this trial, anything’s possible.

In the meantime, happy trialing.

Getting Ready for the Upcoming Jodi Arias Trial

Jodi StandI have more recently been on a hiatus from the blog. I have been working on various other research projects but I plan to be writing quite regularly when the trial begins on September 29, 2014.

Right now there is a media black-out but that could easily change. Judge Stevens has a history of changing her mind.

It would have been most interesting to see Jodi acting as her own lawyer, but she has filed a motion to change that “effective immediately upon filing.” So predictable.

You might remember that Jodi wanted to represent herself during her murder trial. She quickly changed her mind in that case as well.

The last Jodi Arias trial was, in many ways, a circus but it was undoubtedly a unique learning opportunity. Some might even say it was an experience. I expect this next trial to be equally as interesting and mind-expanding.

One can’t help but to be interested in the rare female psychopath.

I had the opportunity to interact with a lot of great people during the trial. I hope to make those connections again during the retrial.

Let the sentencing begin.

Kirk Nurmi Wants Off The Case & Other Jodi Arias Legal News

There have been a few tidbits of news about the Jodi Arias case. At a recent hearing, she asked for a delay in the case because one of her attorneys, Kirk Nurmi, wanted off the case. Their relationship has been described as being severely “fractured.”Jodi and Jen W

Juan Martinez vehemently argued against the delay, but no ruling was made.

Since the hearing, the judge has ruled against Kirk Nurmi’s millionth time trying to get off the case. Apparently, he will be there for the trial.

I don’t doubt that Kirk Nurmi wants off the case, but I also wonder if this issue could be used in an appeal, perhaps to argue that she had incompetent legal representation. Any lawyers know the answer to that question?

It’s also unclear whether she will serve as her own attorney. In the recent hearing, Jodi said that she no longer wanted to be her own attorney and that Jennifer Willmot will be taking over. It’s not clear whether that is official, especially with her other attorney constantly attempting to be removed from the case.

Other new information involves Jodi’s list of witnesses. She is apparently added Sky and Chris Hughes to her witness list. If you recall, this couple was very good friends with Travis Alexander. They hung out with Jodi and Travis, but eventually, grew weary of Jodi.

The couple eventually became frightened of Jodi and no longer wanted her in their home.

Stay tuned. I’m sure there’ll be much more news to follow in this never-ending Jodi drama.

It is Official: Jodi Arias Will Represent Herself At Sentencing Trial

So it looks like it’s official. Jodi Arias will be representing herself in her upcoming September trial. Michael Kiefer of the Arizona Republic was apparently in court today following the news. So too was Troy Hayden. Their tweets tell the story.

No Surprise Here: Jodi Arias Prepping to Defend Herself in Upcoming Trial

According to the website “The Trial Diaries,” Jen Wood, who attended the most recent Jodi Arias hearing, learned some interesting, though not entirely surprising news: Jodi Arias is prepping to represent herself at her upcoming sentencing trial.Jodi DP2

Big shocker, I think not. Jodi Arias’ ego demands that she do this. She is, after all, in her view, the smartest person in the room. Smarter than all of those people who studied the law and graduated law school and successfully practiced law for years. Smarter than Juan Martinez, her would-be opponent, who has practiced law for maybe longer than she has been alive.

This is not the first time Jodi chose self-representation. Early on, she fired her attorneys and felt that she, and she alone, could serve as her best legal representative. I would submit to you that individuals who choose to represent themselves in high-profile cases, especially when facing death, have a high degree of belief in themselves. Some might say arrogant, narcissistic or perhaps mentally ill.

The research about self-representation is relatively minimal. J. Decker (1996) argued that “Some defendants may proceed pro se to symbolize their lack of respect for any kind of authority, . . . or because they are unable to get their way and so represent themselves as an act of defiance” (p. 485).

Decker also believed that these defendants “may be cleverly manipulating the criminal justice system for their own secret agenda (p. 486–7).

Even if there is no hidden motive behind wanting to represent oneself in court, Decker thought that these individuals were “…so totally out of touch with reality that they believe they can do it all themselves” (p. 487).

Psychological reasons for self-representation were explored by Cabell (2012). A person might feel self-empowered representing themselves in front of the jury.

Control is another factor. If an individual is controlling their own defense, then they may be able to convey a more realistic picture of the issues than they believe their appointed counsel could convey.

Some defendants may feel as though they have something important to gain by personally arguing their defense. If they can control the communication with the jury, then they can fully explain themselves and ultimately sway the jury to side with them.

In Jodi’s case, she may believe that given an opportunity to tell her version of events, she’ll be able to sway the jury to forgo the death penalty. She’s good at lying and has probably spent every moment spinning a new variation of her self-defense theory.

She may think that she is good with people but by all accounts, she rubs people the wrong way.  She might also rub the jury the wrong way. It is a very big risk.

Thanks to CNN (who successfully argued for her retrial to be televised), we’ll see Jodi’s ego on full display (albeit not until after the verdict has been reached), should she decide to represent herself.

It will be a case to remember.


John F. Decker, The Sixth Amendment Right to Shoot Oneself in the Foot: An Assessment of the Guarantee of Self-Representation Twenty Years After Faretta, 6 SETON HALL CONST. L.J. 483, 522–23 (1996).

Kennedy Cabell. Calculating an alternative route: The difference between a blindfolded ride and a road map in pro se criminal defense. Law and Psychology Review. 36: p259. (2012).

Weekend Reads: The Best of the Web

Here is what’s happening in the world of mental health and criminal justice from around the web:Copcar

How to spot a liar: Secrets from the FBI

One of Casey Anthony’s attorney’s has written a book, says she’s basically imprisoned

LAPD Cop: There is a mental health state of emergency on Skid Row:

“I have had to arrest many mentally ill men and women who I knew and cared about after their illness drove them to harm someone. Though it was legal and in good faith, it was wrong. I put people in prison and jail who had needed help long before they committed their crimes. I could not stop them ahead of time because they did not say the magic words of “I want to kill myself” or “I want to hurt others.”

Woman accused of poisoning son with Visine drops

Oscar Pistorius was not mentally ill when he killed his girlfriend

Justin Ross Harris (and his wife) looks more and more guilty with every new detail: Today we learn he bought life insurance on his son

Conviction in the “Cannibal Cop” case is overturned. For those not familiar with the details, here is the long, detailed background about the case. It’s a great read

The Washington Post chronicles what it is like to live with someone who is actively psychotic and very sick but not “sick enough” to be committed: Behind the Yellow Door

There will now (finally) be a anti-suicide net on the Golden Gate Bridge

Very well researched piece about the surprising truth about women and violence

How our failed mental health system kills

The New York Times analyzes the mental health of zoo animals

15 Books That Have Informed My View of Criminal Justice In America

These books have informed my view of criminal justice in America. book plainm

(1) The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

(2) Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection by Niobe Way

(3) Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman

(4) People of the Lie: The Hope For Healing Human Evil by M. Scott Peck

(5) The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil by Phillip Zimbardo

(6) Columbine: Dave Cullen

(7) Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work by Paul Babiak and Robert D. Hare

(8) Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us by Robert D. Hare

(9) The Autobiography of an Execution by David R. Down

(10) Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit by John E. Douglas

(11) Dangerous Instincts: Use an FBI Profiler’s Tactics to Avoid Unsafe Situations by Mary Ellen O’Toole

(12) False Justice: Eight Myths That Convict The Innocent by Jim and Nancy Petro

(13) Inside: Life Behind Bars in America by Michael Santos

(14) Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three by Mara Leveritt

(15) The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule

What are some of your favorites? Do you have any books that resonate, “stay with you” or that you continually reference?