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What makes a woman kill?

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In November 2007 a small community, from the hills above the Italian town of Perugia, awoke to the horrifying news that a 21-year-old British student, Meredith Kercher, had been brutally murdered in their town. Two years later, an Italian court finally gave their verdict – her flatmate, Amanda Knox had killed her.

The 23-year-old American was sentenced to 26 years in Capanne prison in Perugia for her role in the killing of the Leeds University student. It’s a case that has gripped the world for the last two years, igniting a furious debate as to what happened on the night of 1 November 2007, and what possible motivation could be behind the murder. Forensic reports suggest that Kercher was stripped, pushed to her knees, sexually abused, strangled and stabbed three times in the neck. The prosecution claimed the motive was Kercher’s refusal to have sex with Knox, her boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito and Rudy Guede, a man the couple had brought back to the home Knox shared with Kercher.

However, despite Sollecito and Guede both receiving life sentences, opinion is divided over whether Knox was guilty of her murder. Criticisms have been targeted at the Italian judicial system over its handling of the case. There are suggestions that Knox’s initial confession was gained under duress – it’s claimed she was hit by officers twice. Senator Maria Cantwell, from Washington state, the Knox family’s home state, even claimed that the verdict was a miscarriage of justice and the result of Italian anti-Americanism. It’s been further claimed that the evidence against Knox, based largely on inconclusive DNA evidence linking her to the alleged murder weapon, would not have stood up in a UK or US court. But perhaps the most baffling factor in the whole tragic situation is that the person at the centre of this crime, the one found guilty of dealing the final blow, is a woman. Knox is an attractive, seemingly intelligent middle-class, all-American girl who shows no known signs of the typical traumas – physical, sexual or mental abuse – that would rationalise the act of murder. But is this a naive way of examining the case? Are the motives and urges that make a woman kill more complex than a troubled childhood or an abusive partner?

The truth is, women represent a tiny proportion of violent criminals in jail across the world. The latest published figures from the UK Ministry of Justice found that just 19 women compared with 350 men were found guilty of murder in 2007. In fact, worldwide, approximately 90% of murders are carried out by men. Consequently research and studies profiling the typical background, characteristics and patterns of behaviour in female murderers is limited. The overwhelming majority of women who do kill, do so in self-defence or when victimisation by an abusive partner or family member leads them to lose control and commit acts they would never ordinarily contemplate. Popular thought by criminologists is that female murderers commonly fall into one of two categories: the compliant accomplice (ie women who undergo a process of physical, sexual and psychological abuse and become transformed into compliant accessories of their criminally active male partners) or as the mastermind behind the crime. Research on solo female serial killers also found that women typically targeted family members – children or spouses. It’s exceptionally rare for the woman not to have had a close relationship with her victim, but when they do kill strangers they usually target the weak and helpless (eg patients, children or the elderly).

Knox is atypical in that she doesn’t fit the usual pattern of a female murderer

Does Knox fit into this profile? Knox first met Sollecito, 25, just two weeks before the murder at a classical music concert. There is no evidence to suggest it was an abusive relationship. Her parents, Kurt Knox, a vice president for finance at Macy’s and Edda Mellas, a maths teacher, divorced when she was two but continued to live near each other after they both remarried. All evidence suggests she had a stable childhood with no signs of abuse. She was a keen soccer player (above, second picture to the right) and a good student who’d opted to study languages at Washington University. The prosecution instead chose to focused on Knox’s sex life – she’d slept with seven partners, three of whom she’d met in Italy – as proof she was accountable. But, a 2008 poll of 2,000 young women found that one in four had slept with more than 10 people. At the age of 21, Knox was not statistically unusual. As Professor David Canter, Director of the Centre for Investigative Psychology at the University of Liverpool points out, Knox’s background seems to lack many of the typical hallmarks of a female murderer. “Most bizarre murders, particularly those with sexual activity, which Kercher’s had, come out of a dysfunctional lifestyle,” he said. “So it’s unusual for apparently capable and functioning youngsters to be caught up like this.”

“Knox is atypical in that she doesn’t fit the usual pattern of a female murderer,” agrees Ann Jones, author of Women Who Kill, who has spoken to and studied female killers intensely. “Of all the female murderers I’ve met, the act was usually a by-product of either an abusive relationship or deep psychological disturbance triggered by abuse, neglect or drugs. None of these factors appear to be present.”

One female killer with the kind of brutalised background described by Jones is the notorious serial killer Aileen Wuornos, who shot dead seven men in Florida between 1989 and 1990. She never knew her father, and had a sexually dysfunctional upbringing which saw her engage in sex from an early age, including with her own brother. She was killed by lethal injection on 9 October 2002 after being found guilty of six counts of murder. In a documentary a year earlier, she had announced that she would not appeal, saying: “I robbed them, and I killed them as cold as ice, and I would do it again, and I know I would kill another person because I’ve hated humans for a long time.”

The defence maintain Kercher didn’t have a motive. She and Kercher had lived together for one month and apart from alleged arguments over Knox’s domestic habits and tendency to bring strangers home – seven friends of Kercher testified they’d argued about these matters – there was no obvious tension. A study quoted in Female Serial Murderers: Directions For Future Research On A Hidden Population by Elizabeth A. Gurian found that, typically, women’s primary motivation to kill is for financial gain, while men’s tend to be more varied, although approximately half are motivated by sexual urges – the claimed motive in Kercher’s murder. Forensic psychiatrist Dr Michael Stone, from Columbia University, agrees this is rare for women. “Sadism and sexuality are not blended in women as they are in men,” he says. However sex is much more likely to factor as a motivation if a woman kills with a male accomplice. Knox wasn’t alone, she was with her boyfriend, Sollecito. “I was struck in this case by the sense of folie a deux – ‘a madness shared by two’,” says Professor Wilson. “Often one will find in, apparently heat of the moment, cases like these when two people are involved, one person encourages the other to engage in activity alien to their usual natures.” This, he says, goes some way to understanding the vile crimes of Rose West and Myra Hindley, prolific serial killers who worked alongside – and apparently under the influence of – deviant partners whom they hero worshipped. “I’m not suggesting it was the same dynamic, but Knox was in the early stages of a relationship with Sollecito and the beginning of a relationship is when you are most likely to go along with someone,” he says.

Despite the fact that the majority of murderers are men, criminologists have found women are more efficient killers

For Carol Anne Davis, an author who has written several books on serial killers, this explanation does not carry much weight. She says that Knox does not strike her as damaged enough to be dragged into this kind of roleplaying. “The women that I profiled had invariably been brutalised by their parents or carers in childhood. The unhappy background often creates a damaged woman who attracts an equally damaged male partner and is willing to follow his lead.” The idea that Knox was under the influence of a man is much easier for society to process.

However, studies have also pointed to control as another strong motivation for women. Professor David Wilson, Professor of Criminology at Birmingham City University says it’s possible Knox was driven by a desire for control over her flatmate. “Sex is often the by-product of the desire to have power and control over another person,” he said. “Sex is often clearly present, as it is here, but it is not usually the defining factor.” For women, he argues, sex tends to be a weapon used to gain both money and power. “History is littered with women who use sex to get close to men before killing them for their money,” he says.

Despite the fact that the majority of murderers are men, criminologists have found women are more efficient killers. Although recent research is sketchy, a study by Kelleher and Kelleher in 1999 looked at 100 female serial killers. It found that it takes eight years to catch a female serial killer, twice as long as it takes to catch a male. The reason? Their chosen method of murder. Historically women kill with poison which is a ‘silent’ weapon with low visibility. Men use more aggressive means so are more likely to be caught. Serial killer Beverley Allitt fits this profile. She became one of Britain’s most notorious serial killers in 1991 after killing four young children while on duty at a Lincolnshire hospital and attempting to murder nine others by administering doses of poison over a four-month period. Described as aggressive, manipulative and deceptive, her motives have never been fully explained, although one theory suggests the personality disorder Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, in which a perpetrator physically falsifies illnesses in someone under their care in order to attract attention, could have been to blame. She is now in the high security hospital, Rampton for a minimum of 30 years.

Whilst Knox might not fit easily into the typical profile of a female killer and her motivation is unclear, there were enough curiosities in her behaviour, contradicting statements and evidence to convince jury members she killed Meredith. She changed her statement various times before suddenly blaming innocent local bar owner Patrick Lumumba for the crime. She was alleged to have done cartwheels in the police station just hours after Kercher’s death. She’d also written a violent short story for her creative writing class at the University of Washington two years before the murder about a young woman who was drugged and raped by another young woman. There’s no doubt her behaviour was bizarre, but since the verdict papers have globally questioned its validity despite Knox saying, “It was a fair trial. I’m not happy with the verdict but my lawyers are appealing.” The argument that she had no motive stands firm against the research on female killers, but equally no one can begin to explain what provokes a person to kill an innocent woman. Although Knox has been found guilty and Kercher’s family are satisfied justice has been done, it seems only further investigation will satisfy public opinion that a woman can kill like a man.

Words: Kathryn Knight. Picture credits: Rex Features

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