Review of 'What Makes a Murderer'

Channel 4 TV Series, Episode 1-3

Review of 'What Makes a Murderer'

What Makes a Murderer is a Channel 4 documentary series exploring an age-old myth: Are murders born killers? The series is co-produced by Dragonfly and UnderworldTV, a TV production company made of ex-criminals and crime experts. At the moment of this writing, it has aired the entire 3 episodes.

The show features two main investigators, neuro-criminologist Professor Adrian Raine and forensic psychologist Dr. Vicky Thakordas-Desai who study three convicted murders. More than 300 murders were initially considered for the show and 10 men and women were shortlisted. However, due to the public nature of the show and the pain that will be inflicted on the volunteers' families, many had to pull out from participation. In the end, three candidates remained, John Masse, Paul Aldridge and Anthony Powell who are all from the London area, served prison sentences and since have been released.

The prime objective of the show is to investigate the biological, psychological and social aspects to the murderers' lives, trying to figure out the risk factors contributing to these individuals' criminal behaviours and exactly to what extent that they are responsible for their violent deeds. The implications could be far and wide, including review of the criminal and justice system, prison reform and inmates rehabilitation, parenting and childcare, social and youth service and so on.

Professor Adrian Raine is a British psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania. He is noted for his research on the neurobiological and biosocial causes of antisocial and violent behaviour in children and adults. He was the first scientist to use neuroimaging to study the brains of murderers and has published hundreds of research works and several award-winning books. Professor Raine's scientific study methods include blood and saliva tests for DNA and hormone analysis, brain scans for anatomical anomalies, other measurements of physical attributes such as head circumference and lengths of fingers for prenatal alcohol influences.

Dr. Vicky Thakordas-Desai is a consultant in Forensic Psychology with Expert Witness training. She has extensive experience in assessing and treating adults and young people with complex mental and behavioural difficulties. 

Episode 1 - "The Story of John Massey"

John Massey, a 71 years old white male who served 43 years sentence. He is one of Britain's longest-serving murders. In 1975, he shot a nightclub bouncer Charlie Higgin to death, walked over his dead body and blasted the pub Cricketers above the nightclub in Hackney. He tried to shoot a policeman dead after by chased in his getaway car. John has multiple escape attempts since his imprisonment. From what I gathered, there's a lot of audacity and creativity involved in his relentless activities. Hats off, what a legend! 

Nature: Enlarged striatum results in reward-seeking behaviour. Reduced amygdala results in fear reduction. Reduction in insular results in lack of empathy, remorse and guilt. A version of the serotonin transporter gene results in low serotonin results in blunted stress response. 

Nurture: Childhood abandonment resulting in emotion repression.

Conclusion: Psychopath.

Critique: It is unclear as to which serotonin transporter gene Professor Raine is talking about and the conclusion seems illogical. I have to assume the genetic variation professor is talking about is the SLC6A4 gene. If that is the case, then either allele would result in John being more prone to depression and neuroticism than psychopathy. Together with enlarged striatum and reduced insular, they could all point to general anxiety disorder. John appears to be the opposite in phenotype, so epigenetics, incomplete penetration of the phenotype or my deviation in interpretation is wrong; I don't know, so I assume the professor is right by default.

Episode 2 - "The Story of Paul Aldridge"

Paul Aldridge is a 43 years old white male who served 22 years. In 1996, he and his partner in crime beat 60 years hitchhiking mental patient Tommy McLauglin to death trying to rob him. They were noted laughing and boasting after the left the man for dead in an underground carpark.

Nature: Loss of tissue in the temporal cortex results in reduced function in moral decision making. Reduction in posterior cingulate results in poor behaviour control. High ring finger to index finger ratio resulted from alcohol consumption and high testosterone exposure during pregnancy which is known linked to violent tendencies. Low response to stress while watching violent materials indicates a high level of tolerance to violence.

Nurture: Prenatal substance abuse, volatile family life, physical abuse and emotional neglect from carers, all resulted in high tolerance to abuse, approval-seeking behaviour. 

Conclusion: Tragic. He could have turned out to be a different person if his mother wasn't a violent alcoholic.

Critique: The testosterone level is off the chart, it is an unprofessional way to present scientific material. 

Episode 3 - "The Story of Anthony Powell"

Anthony Powell is a 49 years old West Indie male who served 20 years. In 1993, he killed David Edwards for a 5K debt he was collecting. He denied his offence for a long time after conviction.

Nature: Reduction in hippocampus results in learning and memory difficulties. ADHD from cognitive tests. A normal reaction to stimuli but lacking anticipatory fear in the stress test. High testosterone level results in aggressive behaviour. Small posterior cingulate results in poor attention. Abnormal cerebrospinal fluid resulted from head injuries. Abnormal development in 'cave of septum pellucidum' resulted from underdevelopment of the fetal brain.

Nurture: Steady family home but encountered racism and violence which leads to anger issues and violent behaviours. Sexual abuse resulted in risk-seeking behaviours. His low academic performance and violent behaviour resulted in expulsion from school which leads to low self-worth and approval seeking in the streets. 

Conclusion: Biological factors loaded the gun and environmental factors pulled the trigger.

Critique: Again, the testosterone chart is unacceptable.

All in all, a fascinating series, definitely worth a watch. Both scientists and contributors seem decent enough. I have my reservations in psychiatry as a science and it is good to see hard measurable neuroscience at work. 

My only caution would be that although significant progress has been made, there's still much to be explored in both genetics and neuroscience. At the moment, cherry-picking certain genes and brain regions seem a little self-serving and disconnected. Genes are themselves regulated by epigenetics so the genotype may not fully penetrate the phenotype. The brain is a very adaptive and plastic organ; many known pathways have been known to have the ability to rewire themselves so a little damage here and there may not be as significant as we imagined. It would be exciting to see the systems working in realtime in a correlated fashion to truly understand the mechanism comprehensively. I hope it's soon.

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