— By Steven Booth —
Broadly speaking, the only serial killers who I would recommend for sentencing to a mental hospital (were anyone to ask me) are disorganized killers (those who kill randomly without any plan or logical reason, who are following visions or voices in their heads), and those with diagnoses in the DSM IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, which is used by psychologists to diagnose mental disorders). You will not find psychopaths in the DSM IV. It is a description, not a diagnosis. I have personally known several psychopaths and they were not “mentally defective,” were able to function in society, and were for the most part nonviolent. None of them were convicted of any crime (though I had first-hand knowledge of nonviolent crimes each committed throughout their lives). They didn’t lack morals and ethics, they lacked empathy for others. That does not rise to the level of “insanity,” and therefore doesn’t suggest that psychopaths should routinely be sent to mental institutions. Thus, the direct answer to your question is, it depends, but for the most part I would prefer they went to prison.
Total lack of empathy is not a “mental deficit” in my opinion. It is adaptive and serves a purpose within our species and within our society. For example, if the individual we are discussing were a soldier in wartime, killing without thought would be rewarded, and the soldier would be considered a hero. “Killing” is not contrary to the needs of society. And a complete lack of empathy can be very useful when society calls for it. “Murder,” on the other hand, is killing without the sanction of society. The difference is in society’s attitude toward the act (killing vs. murder), not in the act itself. Now, to the actual question, Do you believe the (serial killers) should be held accountable for their actions? The answer is yes. I believe everyone should be held accountable for their actions. But once again, the difference between a hero and a villain is the attitudes of society, not the individual themselves. Thus, punishment or reward depends on the circumstances of the killing.
This question is a gauge of my moral and ethical sense. I personally don’t believe in the death penalty as the “go-to” punishment for murder. But that doesn’t mean that it is inappropriate. Arthur Gary Bishop and Westley Allan Dodd both requested the death penalty and worked to accelerate the process. Why? I’m not really sure, but neither of them had anything to live for, and life in prison was actually worse than death. Ted Bundy was executed as well, but that was mostly to placate society’s sense of justice. Since you are asking me, I think that life in prison is more appropriate for most serial killers. It was the correct choice for Theodore Kaczynski, and probably would have been a better punishment for Bishop and Dodd than death. But there are other considerations than justice to consider. Housing a prisoner for life is exceedingly expensive. Would you, Hayden, rather that money be spent on a murderer or some social project you favor (feeding the homeless, rebuilding national infrastructure, lowering taxes, etc.)? That is the kind of consideration that must be taken into account when the death penalty is on the table. Additionally, the death penalty in nearly every state (I don’t believe the federal government has a death penalty at this time, and besides, murder is a state issue) carries with it an automatic appeals process. Each death penalty case must be appealed until all possible appeals are exhausted. This puts the families of the victims through trial after trial until there is no longer any possibility of winning an appeal. It’s a terrible process of never knowing if justice will be served for the victim’s loved ones. The death penalty is not a quick and easy answer.
In the case of those with diagnoses in the DSM IV, perhaps. It depends on their diagnosis and current treatments. For your average psychopath, no, sending them to a mental hospital will do nothing to help. There are no treatments for psychopathy that are effective (to the best of my knowledge). No amount of therapy or medication can replace someone’s empathy.