The Pitfalls and Pratfalls of Criminals

By Jared Hanstra & Ally Powers

In Colorado Springs, a young man walked into a little corner store with a shotgun and demanded all the cash from the cash drawer. After the cashier put the money in a bag, the robber saw a bottle of scotch that he wanted on a shelf behind the counter. He told the cashier to put that in the bag as well. The cashier refused and said, “I don’t believe you are over 21.”

The robber said he was, but the clerk still refused. At this point the robber took his drivers license out of his wallet and gave it to the clerk. The clerk looked it over, and agreed that the man was in fact over 21. He put the scotch in the bag. The robber then ran from the store with his loot. The cashier promptly called the police and gave them the name and address he got off the license. The police arrested the young man two hours later.

What is it about criminals that leads them to make silly mistakes and get caught? This figure shows the percentage of crimes cleared by arrest for 2004.

Tying into Crime and Punishment

Look at the statistic for murder—62.6% of murderers are caught in the US. While some might say it is all modern forensics, the 19th century novel Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky, has some profound insights into why criminals, specifically murderers like the main character Raskolnikov, get caught. In Chapter VI of Part One, Dostoevsky writes:

At first—even long before—he had been occupied with one question: why almost all crimes are so easily detected and solved, and why almost all criminals leave such an obviously marked trail. He came gradually to various and curious conclusions, the chief reason lying, in his opinion, not so much in the material impossibility of concealing the crime as in the criminal himself; the criminal himself, almost any criminal, experiences at the moment of the crime a sort of failure of will and reason, which, on the contrary, are replaced by a phenomenal, childish thoughtlessness, just at the moment when reason and prudence are most necessary (Pages 70-71).

In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov struggles internally with whether or not to go through with his plan of killing the elderly pawnbroker. He gets sick to his stomach before, during, and after his crime, in addition to losing focus on details and struggling to appear innocent. This example leads us to question whether this is something that occurs to all criminals in the time surrounding a crime, or whether there are some people who are able to commit crimes with absolutely no remorse.

Can There Be Cold-Blooded Killers?

There certainly seem to be people in the world who are able to murder, steal, or rape with few thoughts of doubt or guilt, though these tendencies in an individual appear to be rare. Adolf Hitler was responsible for the deaths of over 6 million people and showed little or no remorse, but it was a much more impersonal act of violence. There are many incidents of cold-blooded murder where the murderer feels little guilt, but these cases often involve people with psychological problems. So what makes some people feel such intense guilt after a crime and others no remorse at all?

We believe that the answer to these questions lie in the character’s experiences and background prior to the crime. Individuals with a past of intra-family violence and negative influences have a higher potential to commit crimes and feel less guilt from them.

It is not only a person’s upbringing and experiences that lead him or her to commit a crime. Steven Friedland, who has studied the criminal mind for over 20 years, suggests that genetics may play a part as well.

Indeed, in the case of psychologically insane serial killers, the reasons for their acts cannot be pinpointed to their backgrounds only, because they have thoughts of killing that psychologically sound people do not have. An ABC News article about the mind of a killer presented the story of a particular criminal, Joel Rifkin, who strangled 17 prostitutes with no idea why he had the desire to kill them. For this reason, it would make sense that certain people with disorders are able to kill without remorse; they just do not think the way most people do about morals and situations.

Criminals Try To “Rationalize” Their Crimes

Many people also do not feel guilt after a crime because they feel it is the right thing to do. They have completely convinced themselves that they have been called to do this or that it is good for the people around them. Most suicide bombers, for example, think that they have been called to sacrifice themselves. They consider this way of dying to be honorable, even though they take the lives of the individuals around them.

This way of thinking works for some people, but it does not for others, such as the fictional Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. He tried to reason his crime out by thinking that the death of the pawnbroker would be beneficial for the rest of society, because she was only cheating everyone out of his or her money. Raskolnikov exclaims in the novel:

“’Crime? What crime?’ he cried in sudden fury. ‘That I killed a vile noxious insect, an old pawnbroker woman, of use to no one! . . . Killing her was atonement for forty sins. She was sucking the life out of poor people. Was that a crime?’” (Part 6, Ch. 7).

Both before his crime as well as after, he continues to comfort himself by justifying his crime, just as murderers, thieves, etc. still do in our society today. Despite this comforting thinking, Raskolnikov still felt horrible about his crime, and went about clumsily, even crazily, trying to cover up his tracks.

The fact that some criminals have the ability to “keep their cool” after they commit a crime, whereas many have trouble thinking rationally and covering their tracks, says a lot about our moral nature. We can convince ourselves all we want that a thing is right, but if it goes against the moral code or even the social code of conduct, we constantly think about the decision we made and whether it was the right thing to do. So much thought then is put into the act just committed, and so it becomes hard to concentrate on appearing innocent and removing evidence.

Crime Can Change a Person

After doing something wrong, it is in human nature to suspect suspicion in others. Because of this, we often accidentally hint at our guilt when talking with others. This kind of suspicion does not only occur after high-caliber crimes such as murder, theft, or rape, but also in the little everyday things we do. We are so worried about getting caught or about the suspicion of others that we reveal our guilt simply by our actions and words. This worry of suspicion and the shock of performing a crime are two of the main contributors to a person’s clumsiness directly after a crime.

It is obvious that something drastic in Raskolnikov changes after he commits the double murder at the beginning of the book. He is supposed to be concealing his crime, but it seems as though the “reason and prudence” mentioned above have deserted him. He thought that he would be able to keep his cool because he was above the average run of humankind, but he slowly proves himself wrong. He cannot stop obsessing about the crime.

Trapped in his head, he also alienates himself from society. He is irritable and mean to his mother and sister, whom he has not seen in years. “Don’t torment me!” yells Raskolnikov at one point, “waving his hand irritably” (Crime & Punishment, 197), shortly after he, his mother, and his sister are reunited.

Raskolnikov is so caught up in his own thoughts that he starts to become thoughtless in matters dealing with the crime. In the following scene, Raskolnikov is talking with Porfiry Petrovich about criminal mindsets. His erratic behavior is very visible.

In the clip, Raskolnikov seems to have his thoughts collected at the beginning, but by the end Petrovich is indeed inside his head, and his mindset starts to slip. Petrovich mentions the fact that Raskolnikov went back to the scene of the crime, and that he fainted in the police station. Petrovich insinuates that Raskolnikov simply cannot deal with the crime he committed, and that he will catch Raskolnikov due to his own fault.

It is ironic that Raskolnikov, who before committing the crime was quick to explain why he would not get caught due to thoughtlessness like other criminals, is in fact doing just that. He, himself, even almost goes to the police to confess numerous times. He simply cannot keep up the act of innocence long enough. Without his irregular behaviors, Raskolnikov would have escaped suspicion.

Conclusions

Drawing on the book, one can see that the guilt that comes as a result of our human nature leads many criminals to confess, or to accidentally let something slip so that they are caught. This is a kind of intrinsic punishment system; even if we do not outwardly confess and repent for a crime, we will still suffer the punishment of guilt. The majority of criminals, like Raskolnikov, will struggle with committing crimes. While there can be, due to the issues explained above, “cold-blooded killers” per say, for each human being with a fully functioning mind, there is no way around this inherent atonement.

2 thoughts on “The Pitfalls and Pratfalls of Criminals

  1. Pingback: Sin & Sex: Student Posts on Compulsion Spring 2010 « Neuroanthropology

  2. It is interesting to compare this to “victimless” crimes such as drug use and fast driving. Responsible and compassionate citizens who would never steal, murder, or even willingly inconvenience their fellow citizens, feel absolutely no remorse when using illegal drugs or driving faster than arbitrarily imposed speed limits.

    This suggests to me that such things should be legalised. Further impetus towards drug legalisation is provided by the fact that millions of dollars are wasted in the futile anti-drug quest, with little effect other than to criminalise decent and honest people, and destroy their faith in the judicial system.

    P B

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