Episode 161: The Real Life Implications of Pop Culture’s Fascination with the Dubious Science of “Criminal Profiling”

Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs (1991).


Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

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Nima: Criminal Minds. Inside the Mind of a Serial Killer. Inside the Criminal Mind. Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez.

Adam: These are the titles of popular television series, fictional or otherwise, or documentaries that rely on the work of so-called criminal profilers. They’re all premised, more or less, on the same idea: That the ability to venture inside the mind of an individual who’s committed a horrific act of violence — say, serial murder, rape, kidnapping — is the key to figuring out why that crime happened in the first place. This theory may sound promising at first blush; after all, the highest echelons of law enforcement in the US continue to use criminal profiling tactics to this day.

Nima: But the reality is that, despite their prevalence in law enforcement both onscreen and off, criminal profiling techniques are largely ineffective, and in many ways, can be dangerous. Failing to consider institutional factors such as a culture of violence and easy access to weapons, patriarchy, austerity and other social ills that contribute to and reinforce violent crime, criminal profiling focuses almost exclusively on individual experiences and psychological makeup. Meanwhile, it characterizes “criminals” not as people who’ve been shaped by this social conditioning, but as neuro-deviants whose psychological anatomy is just plain different from yours or mine.

Adam: On today’s episode, we’ll examine the history of the practice of criminal profiling in the West; how the FBI and entertainment industry work in tandem to glamorize the profession, despite its harms; what the actual effectiveness of profiling is; and how it serves as yet another form of Hollywood copaganda.

Nima: Today, we’ll be joined by two guests. First, Tom MacMillan, Senior Analyst on the Investigations team at Transparentem, a Brooklyn-based human rights organization. Previously a journalist for over a decade, his writing has appeared in New York Magazine’s Vulture and TheCut, as well as The Wall Street Journal, Esquire and Cosmopolitan.

[Begin Clip]

Tom MacMillan: Having created this terrifying bogeyman to fear, you know, the serial killer who is almost sort of supernaturally cunning and devious and, well then you need a, you know, you need to create a sort of correspondingly powerful hero and it has to be a protector who gives the viewer some sense of control over this thing that seems so scary, and then in steps the police armed with these scientific techniques and this kind of superhuman abilities that are equally matched to the power of the serial killer.

[End Clip]

Nima: We’ll also be joined by Chris Fabricant, Director of Strategic Ligation at the Innocence Project and author of the new book, Junk Science and the American Criminal Justice System, out now from Akashic Books.

[Begin Clip]

Chris Fabricant: Because if you have the idea that they’re just incorrigible people, they’re criminals or drug addicts, you know, it means that there’s really no salvation and they’re worthy of punishment really, and then, blaming biology on it absolves the need to even consider rehabilitation or the systemic issues that led to the arrest to begin with, or anything else. It really just, it allows you to wash your hands of any responsibility as a society.

[End Clip]

Adam: This is both a sequel to Episode 159, which dealt with the use of psychological profiling by corporations. This is the use of psychological profiling by police and police entertainment television. It is also in addition to being an actual sequel, a spiritual sequel, as I’m required by law to say to Episode 94: The Goofy Pseudoscience Copaganda of TV Forensics, this is a both spiritual and literal sequel, so I’m excited to dive into it.

Nima: “Criminal profiling” is defined by the FBI as, quote, “a technique used to identify the perpetrator of a violent crime by identifying the personality and behavioral characteristics of the offender based upon an analysis of the crime committed,” end quote. The practice was codified within the FBI in the 1970s — more on that in a bit — but its seeds were planted much earlier than that.

Most sources trace the origins of criminal profiling to 19th-century Europe and subsequently the United States, although there were some antecedents earlier in the 19th-century. But notions of quote-unquote “criminal profiling” likely first became popular through detective literature. The protagonist of Edgar Allan Poe’s 1841 story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” was C. Auguste Dupin, an amateur detective. Dupin used pieces of evidence, other elements of crimes, and intuition to build a description of an unidentified perpetrator, eventually, of course, cracking the case.

Adam: In the 1860s, author Wilkie Collins published The Woman in White, featuring another amateur detective, who uses intuition and informal notions of quote-unquote “human nature” to solve cases. According to authors Scotia J. Hicks and Bruce D. Sales, quote:

Collins is also credited with authoring the first modern detective novel. Whereas Poe’s Dupin and The Woman in White’s Hartright were only amateurs, Collins’s novel The Moonstone introduces a law enforcement agent who tried his hand at profiling. Scotland Yard’s Sergeant Cuff is a professional detective employed by a family to locate a stolen diamond. He proceeds in his investigation by collecting witness statements and using crime scene evidence to infer the behaviors and motives of the unidentified perpetrator. He then uses this information to identify a potential suspect and suggest a strategy for recovering the stolen diamond. This is perhaps the earliest example of bringing in an expert to consult on a criminal case. By the end of the 19th century, however, expert consultation would be the hallmark of mystery literature.

Nima: By far the most famous literary example of a master detective profiler is Sherlock Holmes, who debuted soon after The Woman in White, in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1887 story “A Study in Scarlet.” Around the same time, one of the first known instances of real-life “criminal profiling” surfaced and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it was closely connected to race science at the time. In 1876, Italian criminologist and phrenologist Cesare Lombroso published L’Uomo Delinquente, or The Criminal Man in English, in which he argued that “criminality” could be associated with physical characteristics like — what for it — skull shape.

Adam: No way.

Nima: Yeah. According to author Norbert Ebisike, quote:

He maintained that by comparing information about similar offenders such as race, age, sex, physical characteristics, education, and geographic location, the origins and motivations of criminal behavior could be better understood and subsequently predicted. Lombroso, basing his ideas on Darwin’s theory of evolution, maintained that there are six types of criminals: 1) the born criminal, 2) the insane criminal, 3) the criminal by passion, 4) the habitual criminal, 5) the occasional criminal, and 6) and the criminaloid.

Lombroso has the idea that there is a born criminal and argued that criminality is inherited and could be identified by physical defects. For him, criminals have certain physiognomic deformities. He saw criminals as savage and atavistic. In his theory of atavism, he measured the heads of living and executed criminals against the skulls of apes and prehistoric humans and came up with the idea that criminals were victims of atavism.

Now atavism, as Ebisike is describing, has to do with the inherited traits from ancestors. But in this case, not just people in your family that came before, but actual prehistoric or ape-like ancestors to human beings. So in this way, it’s that criminals were seen as less evolved, right? Lombroso documented a series of so-called “defects” that he linked to supposed criminality, including, quote, “asymmetry of the face” and “excessive length of arms,” end quote.

Adam: Now Lombroso’s work was foundational to the Italian race laws under Mussolini 40 or 50 or so years later, and we’ll talk more about that a little bit later.

One of the first profiles is largely understood to have surfaced during the investigation of Jack the Ripper’s still-unsolved serial murders in 1880s London — the first serial murder case to generate a media frenzy. In 1888, police surgeon Thomas Bond was approached to examine the bodies of the victims because of a clear pattern in the murders: all targeted women who were prostitutes, and all involved gruesome organ removal that led police to believe the killer may have had medical knowledge. Bond wrote a report about the murders in which he offered a speculative “profile” of Jack the Ripper in which he stated, quote:

all five murders were no doubt committed by the same hand… the murderer must have been a man of physical strength and of great coolness and daring … the murderer in external appearance is quite likely to be a quiet inoffensive looking man probably middle-aged and neatly and respectably dressed… he would be solitary and eccentric in his habits, also he is most likely to be a man without regular occupation, but with some small income or pension.

Bond’s profile has been cited as the first time a criminal investigation was informed by a medical professional.

Nima: Half a century later, by the 1950s, modern criminal profiling was really beginning to take form as we know it today. In 1956, American psychiatrist James A. Brussel was approached by police to help investigate a series of bombings in New York City, despite Brussel’s total lack of investigative training. The case had remained unsolved for, at that point 16 years, and the NYPD was under pressure to make an arrest. The attacks were attributed to the “Mad Bomber,” George Metesky, who would be arrested in early 1957.

On Christmas Day, 1956, The New York Times and other area newspapers published a summary of Brussel’s profiling, stating this, quote: “Single man between 40 and 50 years old. Introvert. Unsocial but not antisocial. Skilled mechanic cutting meat with tools. Egotistical of mechanical skill. Contemptuous of other people. Resentful of criticism of his work, but probably conceals resentment. Moral. Honest. Not interested in women. High school graduate. Expert in civil or military ordinance. Religious. Might flare up violently at work when criticized. Possible motive: discharge or reprimand. Feels superior to critics. Resentment keeps growing. Present or former Consolidated Edison worker. Probably case of progressive paranoia.”

End quote. A few days later on December 28 1956, a Boston Globe article cited Brussels analysis of the bomber and analysis that also happens to disguise overt almost comical misogyny as legitimate psychology.

Prior to the arrest, a Boston Globe article from Dec. 28, 1956 cited Brussel’s analysis of the bomber — an analysis that also happens to disguise overt, almost comical misogyny as legitimate psychology. Here’s the article from the Boston Globe, the headline reads, “Psychologist Doubts It’s Woman Mad Bomber Neat and Over 40.” The article says this, quote:

The possibility that the ‘Mad Bomber’ may be a woman, or that he may use a woman as an accomplice, was called ‘silly’ yesterday by Dr. James A. Brussel, assistant commissioner of the state Department of Mental Health. Statements attributed to high police officials indicate that they entertain this possibility.

In dismissing the idea of an accomplice, Dr. Brussel, who has described the bomber as a paranoiac, said of the type: ‘They have confidence only in themselves. They are overwhelmingly egocentric. They distrust everyone. An accomplice would be a potential bungler or double crosser.’

His reasoning with regard to a woman being the ‘Mad Bomber’ is a little more complex.

First, he pointed out that the mechanical skills required for the construction of a bomb are alien to the feminine personality. Also, the very character of the act of bombing, he said, would run counter to feminine traits.

George Metesky, AKA the “Mad Bomber,” holds a newspaper reporting his arrest.

George Metesky was arrested for the bombings on January 21, 1957, ending a decade-and-a-half reign of terror that had struck New York City libraries and train stations, phone booths and public bathrooms, bus terminals and subways, Radio City Music Hall, and 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Years earlier in 1931, Metesky was working in a generator plant run by energy company Consolidated Edison, better known as ConEd, and was the victim of a workplace accident at the company’s Hellgate plant on the bank of the East River in the Bronx. A boiler backfired and blasted Metesky with blazing hot gases, knocking him over and filling his lungs with noxious fumes. The accident left him disabled and after collecting 26 weeks of sick pay, ConEd fired him. His worker’s comp claims were fought by the company and ultimately rejected. He subsequently vowed revenge on ConEd and planted his first bomb nine years later in 1940, and another ConEd power plant, this time in Manhattan.

Even after his arrest, psychological profiles of the Mad Bomber, now confirmed as Metesky, continued. Here’s one from the Tampa Tribune, Tampa, Florida from January 27, 1957. The headline is, “The ‘Mad Bomber’ Was A Gentle Dr. Jekyll Slowly Transformed Into A Savage Mr. Hyde By Real Or Imagined Fumes From Boiler.” In one section of the article, a sub headline reads, “A Gentle Man.” and the article says this, quote:

On that Autumn day, George Metesky was a quiet introvert with a mixed up mental outlook. He was a gentle man and he probably had never physically harmed anyone in his life.

But the fumes — whether they were real or whether they existed only in his mind — were to transform him into another personality just as the mystery potion converted gentle Dr. Jekyll into savage Mr. Hyde in Robert Louis Stevenson’s famed novel.

For out of the fumes, if such there were, emerged a man in the first stage of transformation from gentle George Metesky to the Mad Bomber of New York City.

End quote.

Adam: Popular recollections of the Metesky case often credit James Brussel with helping to identify him. But Brussel got quite a lot wrong, and the guesses he offered weren’t really substantive or relevant. For example, he claimed Metesky would be, quote, “symmetrically built,” a characteristic Brussel associated with paranoia, and wear a double-breasted suit at the time of the arrest. Metesky is actually reported to have worn pajamas during his arrest, then changed later on. Brussel’s analysis did little to help capture Metesky, according to Michael M. Greenburg, who wrote a book chronicling the search for Metesky.

New York newspapers, including the New York Herald Tribune and the New York Journal-American, published an open letter to the bomber that, according to Greenburg, quote, “promised good treatment to the bomber if he would reveal himself and turn himself in.” Metesky responded to the letter, disclosing that he blamed the energy company Consolidated Edison, or Con Ed, for an injury on the job that he believed led to his developing tuberculosis. Details from the letters — not so much from Brussel’s speculations — helped lead to Metesky’s capture in January of 1957.

Cut to the 1970s, the FBI eventually systematized this practice, establishing its Behavioral Science Unit in 1972. The unit was founded by agents Howard Teten and Harold Mullany, who had been teaching psychological profiling techniques at the FBI’s then-new academy in Quantico, Virginia. Later that decade, after the 1977 arrest of serial killer David Berkowitz, AKA Son of Sam, in New York City, news media were disseminating a narrative that Berkowitz, a once, quote, “quiet” and “peaceful” loner, had suddenly changed while in the Army during the Korean War.

An August 12, 1977 New York Daily News headline read, “Sam Changed After LSD Trips Took Drugs as Soldier in Korea.” On the same day, the New York Times ran a piece headlined, quote, “Berkowitz Is Described as ‘Quiet’ and as a ‘Loner.’” The excerpt in the New York Times read, quote:

While attending high school and college, Mr. Berkowitz lived with his father in a four‐and‐a‐half‐room apartment on the 17th floor of 170 Dreiser Loop in Co‐op City.

Two young men who did not want to have their names published, said that they had been friends of Mr. Berkowitz during his teen‐age years at Co‐op City. They described him as a ‘peaceful’ person but said that they felt that something may have happened to him while he was in the Army in Korea. They said that some of the letters he sent back then had sounded ‘incoherent.’

‘He was a loner, a nice boy,’ said Philip Lerner, who still lives in the building. ‘He stayed by himself. He was as human as anyone else. But he was alone. I never saw him with girls. Never saw him with any friends. Not Dave.’

Nima: Now, notice that the emphasis in these articles is never on the conditioning of soldiers in the US military, right? The military itself is never cited as a possible source for systemic encouragement of violence or changing someone’s personality, rather, there must have been some single, mysterious incident. And of course, you can refer back to the Daily News headline, “Sam Changed After LSD Trips.” But not long after this, agents in the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit began to study David Berkowitz and other serial killers like Ted Bundy and Edmund Kemper, who had been terrorizing the country for years. Agents John Douglas and Robert Ressler traveled around the United States interviewing 36 serial killers and other incarcerated violent offenders. The two joined with Ann Burgess, a nurse who treated victims of sexual trauma, and together they published a taxonomy of the interviewees. This study would culminate in the 1988 book Sexual Homicide: Patterns and Motives, often considered the basis for FBI criminal profiling methods.

Wired magazine published a video with Jim Clemente, a former FBI agent explaining the development of criminal profiling within the bureau and the significance of the interviews conducted by Douglas, Ressler, and Burgess. Here’s a clip:

[Begin Clip]

Jim Clemente: The original FBI profilers de Gaulle, John Douglas, Roy Hazelwood, Robert Ressler, Pete Merrick, they gain this body of knowledge by actually going into prisons and interviewing convicted serial killers. They interviewed them in great detail about what they did, and also how they grew up, and how they felt during the entire time that they were killing people, developing this criminal expertise and that they were getting away with these crimes. For example, from Ed Kemper, they learned that he had a very difficult relationship with his mother, so he started killing surrogates in place of her and then he killed his mother. David Berkowitz showed how sexual frustration can be taken out on innocent people on the streets of New York. From Ted Bundy, they learned that he was a sexual sadist, that he got off on causing and witnessing the pain and suffering of others, but he did that many times by using his psychopathic charm to lure in victims and he feigned injury, so that it was the people who wanted to help him that he ended up killing. So now we have an amazing volume of institutional knowledge about these offenders and it tells us how they killed and why they killed and it helps us to hunt them down.

[End Clip]

Adam: The study’s findings largely emphasized individual experiences and psychological patterns, without pointing to any institutional influences. These included the following: Characterization of “organized” or “disorganized” murder types, correlation between abuse in childhood and mutilation in sexual crime, and fantasy underlying four major phases of sexual murder. While there is some merit to these theories, the analysis is incomplete if it doesn’t take into account the very powerful effects of institutions in the US and other countries that reinforce misogyny, racism, and violence.

The work of Douglas and his colleagues was beginning to pervade popular culture. In 1981, the psychological horror novel Red Dragon was published. The novel, authored by Thomas Harris, told the story of former FBI profiler Will Graham, who comes out of retirement to find a serial killer nicknamed the Tooth Fairy. Red Dragon also introduced the characters Jack Crawford, an FBI agent based on Douglas, and Hannibal Lecter, the cannibalistic psychiatrist and serial killer, and would be adapted into the 1986 Michael Mann film Manhunter.

Nima: Now, Harris would of course go on to write the most iconic books of this genre — and one we can probably blame much of the popular fascination with criminal profiling on — 1988’s The Silence of the Lambs, the sequel to Red Dragon and the inspiration for the multi-Oscar winning 1991 movie directed by Jonathan Demme. Now, here’s a clip from the movie in which Hannibal Lecter, played by Anthony Hopkins, profiles serial killer Buffalo Bill who’s being tracked down by the FBI, especially by the character of Agent Starling, played by Jodie Foster.

[Begin Clip]

Hannibal Lecter: Billy is not a real transsexual, but he thinks he is, he tries to be. He’s tried to be a lot of things I expect.

Agent Starling: And when you said that I was very close to the way we would catch him, what did you mean doctor?

Hannibal Lecter: There are three major centers for transsexual surgery, Johns Hopkins, University of Minnesota, and Columbus Medical Center. I wouldn’t be surprised if Billy had applied for sex reassignment at one or all of them and been rejected.

Agent Starling: On what basis would they reject him?

Hannibal Lecter: Look for severe childhood disturbances associated with violence. Our Billy wasn’t born a criminal Clarice, he was made one through years of systematic abuse. Billy hates his own identity you see, and he thinks that makes him a transsexual. But his pathology is a thousand times more savage, and more terrifying.

[End Clip]

Adam: So Silence of the Lambs sort of opened up a whole new genre, which is the idea that you could create an investigative whodunit puzzle by mapping human psychology and coming up with ontologies of human psychology to then predict or track down who the killer was, which is a whole new, exciting and sexy avenue of the classic whodunit genre or criminal investigation genre. So that, of course, is very attractive, both in terms of the public’s belief in how murderers are caught, hint, less than 1 percent of 1 percent is done through criminal profiling, and two, it really gives a sense that the human mind is something that’s predictive and can be mapped and can be put into a neat little category to kind of whittle down the suspects. And so after The Silence of the Lambs came out, one of the three films to win all five major awards at the Academy Awards, Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Director, it was obviously a runaway hit, phenomenal movie, one of my favorite movies.

Nima: Yeah.

Adam: Supposedly, the perfect script, exactly 120 pages, first act 30 pages, second act 60 pages, third act 30 pages.

Nima: Yeah, it’s pretty solid.

Adam: Yeah, it’s the perfect one to two to one ratio. They teach it in film school. And so this really kind of set the table for a whole new genre of psychological profiling, that while it had some merits here and there, I mean, obviously, you know, for example Nima, if I see a body and the organs are cut out with exquisite precision, it is probably logical to assume the murderer —

Nima: That there’s some medical training there, right.

Adam: Right. There are certain common sense things you can infer from it. But that’s, of course, not even a psychological profile, that’s just a professional sort of inclination. So what you see is this kind of getting out of hand, and it having the dual purpose of being incredibly entertaining, but also misleading the public with an understanding of exactly how the FBI and police catch quote-unquote “criminals.”

Nima: Yeah, so the genre really exploded throughout the ’90s. There’s the 1994, fictional crime thriller The Alienist, actually one of my very favorite books, which was written by military historian Caleb Carr. It chronicles the search for a serial killer of young male prostitutes in the seamy underbelly of 1896 New York City. The book, which has since been adapted into a TNT television series of the same name, is set one year after the publication of Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer’s groundbreaking Studies on Hysteria, which marked the birth of Western psychoanalysis. The fictional character of Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, the “alienist” of the novel’s title, is a psychiatrist exploring new methods of analysis that hint at the birth of criminal psychology. Psychiatrists at the turn-of-the-century were known actually as “alienists,” as they sought to study the diseases of the mind — not the brain — the motives and mechanics of mental illness, or “psychopathology,” as Carl Jung later put it. Together with a group of other protagonists, including two detectives pioneering forensic science such as fingerprinting and the then New York City Police Commissioner Teddy Roosevelt, Dr. Kreizler helps hunt the murderer using early methods of criminal profiling.

Dakota Fanning, Daniel Brühl, and Luke Evans of TNT’s The Alienist.

Now, Caleb Carr has since published two sequels in his Kreizler Trilogy, The Angel of Darkness in 1997 and Surrender, New York nearly twenty years later in 2016. In 2018, The Alienist was produced as a TV show, as I said, for TNT, with a second season based on the sequel that came out a couple years after that. In this clip that we’re going to listen to, the main characters discuss evidence found at the crime scene and how they will subsequently hunt the killer.

[Begin Clip]

Dr. Kreizler: And phosphor degradation. A person leaving a fingermark such as this might as well drop a monogrammed handkerchief. So he did.

John Moore: Who? You talk about him as if you know him.

Dr. Kreizler: We don’t yet know him, John. But we will. We may not know his name or where he lives, but he exists in plain sight. Though evidence does not immediately reveal him, there are hints and indications to his identity that he’s unwittingly left behind. Now our task is to gather those hints and indications to construct an image of the man, his age, his background, his habits, but most importantly, his appetites. Look at who his victims are, where he commits his crimes and what exactly he does to them, until a pattern begins to emerge. Each and every one of the choices he makes will reveal a hidden aspect of his alienated mind.

[End Clip]

Nima: In 1996, former FBI profiler John Douglas published another book, co-written by Mark Olshaker, called Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit, which detailed his 25-year career. The same year, NBC premiered the show Profiler, about a forensic psychologist and criminal profiler with a supernatural ability to “see” into the “criminal mind.” Profiler would be rivaled by similar shows like Fox’s Millennium in 1996, about an ex-FBI agent who could, quote, “see inside the minds of criminals,”end quote, and CBS’s Criminal Minds in 2005, about, quote, “FBI profilers who analyze the country’s most twisted criminal minds, anticipating their next moves before they strike again,” end quote.

Adam: I want someone to do a show about low level petty theft, retail theft in San Francisco and it uses all the high brow, like, ‘Oh, yeah, I got a double PhD at Harvard and Yale and I’ve got inside the mind but only of people who steal DVD players.’ Can you catch rapists and murderers? ‘No, no, no, no, I don’t have time for that.’

Nima: But you need the LaFontaine voiceover for every single one.

Adam: ‘I only catch people who steal baby formula from CVS.’

Nima: ‘But I’m inside their mind.’

Adam: ‘I’m sensing she’s a woman between the ages of 18 and 32.’

Nima: ‘A man would never do that.’

Adam: ‘Who has an abusive husband, who is also poor.’

Nima: (Laughs.) Let me guess, there’s a baby.

Adam: (Laughs.) Yes, there’s a baby involved. Here’s a clip from Criminal Minds in which the FBI agent profiles a suspect. So this is when it starts to get incredibly goofy because again, these things are kind of degenerate, you have to keep upping the stakes, and so you begin to see an evolution from vague psychological profiles, which may kind of whittle down a list of suspects, into just full blown pseudoscience and suppositions and quasi phrenology.

So what’s going on is he’s looking at the mirror and the reflection looks back at him and laughs and he’s not laughing, the reflection is laughing at him because he’s crazy, and then he punches the mirror, crazy.

[Begin Clip]

Hotch: We believe our unsub is a white male paranoid schizophrenic who suffers from hallucinations. Since schizophrenic breaks usually occur in your early ’20s, we believe he’s around this age and that he lives nearby. We think this unsub is hyper vigilant, and in this condition, he is unable to travel very far from his home.

Rossi: He kills at night and is extremely violent. During the day he’s most likely a loner. Someone in this state probably can’t keep a job. We believe something happened to our unsub in his childhood, childhood voices are telling him to kill or he’s misinterpreting them as doing so.

Seaver: Our unsub has probably been coping until now, but a recent stressor brought him back to that childhood incident and it’s causing him to act out.

Morgan: Our unsub spends his days wandering, trying to fight the desire to kill, yet he feels trapped by his hallucinations. No matter what he does or tries to do the hallucinations’ power is greater than his own.

[End Clip]

Nima: Douglas’s 1996 book Mindhunter also became the basis for the 2017 Netflix series of the same name from director David Fincher, and starring Jonathan Groff, Holt McCallany and Anna Torv. The show chronicles the work of Douglas, fictionalized in the show through FBI agent Holden Ford, that’s the Jonathan Groff character, depicting him as a visionary who ruffled a few feathers among the bureaucratic old guard with his new-fangled techniques but ultimately made the FBI stronger and more incisive.

Adam: Here’s a clip from Mindhunter from an episode in which Tench and Ford interview Charles Manson inspired by the interviews conducted by Douglas and his colleagues. After the interview, they sit with Wendy Carr based on the aforementioned nurse Ann Burgess. Quick note, Tex and Sadie they mention are Tex Watson and Sadie Mae Glutz, who were two members of the Manson family.

[Begin Clip]

Carr: He had influence over his young followers much in the same way that Corll had over Henley. He used sex and drugs, but he also had an overt philosophy.

Tench: If you can call it that.

Carr: What is Helter Skelter, really? It’s borrowed, but how is it useful to him? What if the point of Helter Skelter wasn’t a race war? What if it was about control?

Tench: Over the Family?

Ford: A cause to forge solidarity.

Carr: What if Tex and Sadie did come up with the idea of a copycat crime? It’s proactive, risky, revolutionary. It may not have been what Manson intended, but they called his bluff. They were doing what he only talks about. From Manson’s perspective, his authority would have been threatened.

Tench: He’d have no choice but to go along with it.

Ford: At the LaBianca house, Manson went in and tied up the victims before sending the killers in. He wanted to remind them that this was his plan. Not anyone else’s.

Carr: He was doing whatever he could to keep authority over his Family. Control, or at least the appearance of it, was worth any cost. Even seven murders.

[End Clip]

Adam: You notice in the clip, they completely dismissed Manson’s white supremacist motives, which he wrote out pretty clearly, in terms of igniting a race war, or his many sketchy links to MK-Ultra, but that’s a different podcast.

Nima: Mental note: Podcast co-host knows a lot about Charles Manson’s writings.

Adam: (Laughs.) Yeah. I read Chaos, a book by Tom O’Neill. It’s very good. So this is sort of typical of the genre. So things like ideology, white supremacist beliefs, which are oftentimes genuine and lucid, things like potential links to military experimentation or LSD use or military service, which of course, were quite common in the ’50s and ’60s, they’re sort of poo pooed away, and we get this kind of psychological profile where they want control, sex this sex that, and again, there may be some basis to some of that, but institutional reasons or any kind of association with violent acts or extremist ideologies, whether it be US military or white supremacist ideology, it’s kind of just poo pooed away and seen as not really a factor.

Nima: Well, it’s not nearly as fun, right?

Adam: Well, it also kind of calls into question bigger factors behind violence and the US’ extremely high murder rate, because the US has a very, very high murder rate compared to other countries, even today. The average American is 25 times more likely, as of 2010, to be killed with a handgun than people in any other country in the world.

Nima: But if you focus only on individual responsibility, on personal history, you don’t really have to investigate systemic issues, you don’t have to investigate societal factors at a much, much larger scale. You just kind of write that off as like almost a given, and then you’re like, ‘Well, yeah, but we all experienced that and not everyone is a murderer’, and attribute those that do commit these horrific acts of violence, only personal psychological profiles.

Adam: So this dovetails with the skyrocketing popularity of true crime in TV and film. Netflix, for example, has released countless true crime and killer themed documentaries and miniseries, many of which traffic in psychological profiling, or vague kind of pseudo phrenology, readings of the mind of a killer, Making A Murderer, Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez, Inside the Criminal Mind. Here’s a clip from Inside the Criminal Mind about “predisposition” to crime, featuring commentary from a forensic psychologist and a criminology professor.

[Begin Clip]

Man #1: The often asked question is why is it that two children can suffer the same terrible childhood, but one will cope and the other will kill?

Man #2: That’s a great question. I think that question is currently hotly debated, and it’s something that ‘s been questioned now over 250 years: Is someone born a criminal? Is someone made a criminal?

Man #1: Cutting edge research in the new field of neuro criminology is now trying to determine if some people are predisposed to violent behavior at birth.

Man #2: There is neuroimaging studies, fMRI studies, looking at the differences between quote, “normal brains” and individuals who are psychopathic, and that is the direction where we’re going and that is that there are differences in your anatomy.

Man #3: So there is some element of, if you like, biology or neurological data that tells us that some individuals may be more predisposed, and I’m thinking in particular, of the recent work done by Professor Adrian Raine, looking at brain patterns between murderers and non murderers.

Man #1: In 2013, Dr. Adrian Raine, professor of criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, released a study observing neuro and brain imaging in violent criminals, murderers, psychopaths and serial killers.

Their brains were observed to be different to those of normal people with diminished activities in the area of the brain that are linked with self awareness, the processing of emotions and sensitivity to violence.

[End Clip]

Adam: So brain mapping has become increasingly popular over the last 10 years, it has faced a lot of backlash. It’s mostly bullshit. But I want to talk a bit about the psychologist Adrian Raine that’s referenced there as the primary source for the brain mapping and the idea that a brain is a criminal brain.

Adrian Raine

Nima: Yeah, this guy has been quoted all over. For instance, March 4, 2011, in Live Science, the article, “Criminal Minds Are Different From Yours, Brain Scans Reveal,” in which he’s quoted as saying, “The amygdala is the seat of emotion. Psychopaths lack emotion.”

Adam: So we mentioned Cesare Lombroso earlier, the Italian phrenologist, and we said we would come back to him, so now we’re gonna get back to him. I’m going to read from a 2013 New York Times Book Review of Professor Adrian Raine’s work, and we’re going to see if maybe this is slightly problematic. The New York Times’ as Paul Bloom wrote about Adrian Raine’s book, quote:

The Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso makes for an unlikely hero. In the late 1800s, Lombroso proposed that criminals were evolutionary throwbacks who could be identified by primitive features like sloping foreheads and large jaws, and he went on to posit an evolutionary hierarchy of the races, with northern Italians at its apex. Such ideas inspired Mussolini’s racial laws in the 1930s, and are at the core of some of the ugliest social movements of our time. In his provocative book, ‘The Anatomy of Violence,’ the psychologist Adrian Raine sets out to rehabilitate Lombroso. If you take away the racism and phrenology, Raine argues, you can see he was ‘on the path toward a sublime truth’: The study of the biological roots of criminal behavior — or ‘neurocriminology’ — will not only yield satisfying insights into human nature, it can incite effective and humane methods for reducing crime…

So, what are those humane methods? Bloom would go on in The New York Times in his review of Raine’s book, quote:

But what about those whom it’s too late to help? Here Raine has something more radical in mind. He describes a futuristic situation in which the government initiates a ‘Minority Report’-style program called ‘Legal Offensive on Murder: Brain Research Operation for the Screening of Offenders’ — lombroso. All men 18 and over will undergo a brain scan and a DNA test, and those whose results indicate future criminality will spend the rest of their lives in a pleasant enough form of indefinite detention. As Raine tells it, this program will lead to a staggering drop in crime, among other benefits. ‘The jury system of the 2010s was undoubtedly racially biased. . . . Lombroso, in contrast, is scrupulously objective and data-driven, and the results have pleased civil libertarians and minority leaders alike.’ Raine is aware that this proposal — along with others, like chemical castration for sex offenders — is quite a bit more controversial than better nutrition for tots, and he tries his best to address the ethical concerns. (One point he raises is that the notion of preventive detention shouldn’t be all that shocking, since we do it already — in Guantánamo Bay and elsewhere.) But a more immediate objection is that it would never work; the link between genetic and neurological factors is nowhere near strong enough. Low resting heart rate, for instance, can explain only 5 percent of the variation in antisocial behavior. As Raine notes, this is not a trivial relationship; it’s stronger than the link between smoking and cancer. But as the foundation for locking someone up for life, it’s ludicrous.

Thank you, Paul Bloom.

Nima: Thank you, Paul Bloom, at least we got there. Wow, dude.

Adam: One of the more popular brain science guys is a phrenologist from Italy, wants to take the non racist parts of phrenology and create a Minority Report-like pre-crime system where you basically lock people up based on pixelated maps of brain activity? I mean, this is totally batshit, and this is the kind of stuff that passes for cutting edge neuro criminology, and it’s completely mainstream. This is not like a fringe thing. This is a recent Netflix documentary citing his work favorably here, and this is someone who quite literally wants to name a Minority Report-like pre-crime indefinite detention after a famous Italian phrenologist who established the racial hierarchies based on Mussolini. I mean, this is —

Nima: I mean but other than that stuff, Adam, he seemed like a pretty cool dude.

Adam: Yeah.

Nima: Now, despite the prevalence of criminal profiling in pop culture and news media, and the Department of Justice’s insistence itself that it is a, quote, “viable investigative tool against violent crime,” criminal profiling doesn’t really appear to work all that well. Over the course of at least two decades, studies have shown that the process of criminal profiling is largely unscrutinized and altogether ineffective.

A 2002 study from the University of Liverpool showed that similarities between crime scenes had no correlation with similarities between criminals. The authors concluded that, quote, “These findings indicate no evidence for the assumption of a homology between crime scene actions and background characteristics for the rapists in the sample,” end quote.

Similarly, a 2007 meta-analysis of several previous studies deemed profiling a, quote, “pseudoscientific technique,” end quote, stating that, quote, “profilers do not decisively outperform other groups when predicting the characteristics of an unknown criminal,” end quote, and adding, quote, “The use of criminal profiling in criminal investigations has continued to increase despite scant empirical evidence that it is effective,” end quote.

Adam: Yeah, but you gotta admit it’s fucking cool.

Nima: It just sounds great, and I want to constantly see shows and read about it and listen to podcasts on true crime because it sounds awesome.

Adam: Right. I don’t care if it’s real, yeah. According to a 2010 Guardian article entitled, “Psychological profiling ‘worse than useless,’” this article is more than 11 years old by the way, but mentions that profiling of killers has no real-world value, it wastes police time and risks bringing the profession into disrepute, experts cited in the piece stated, “Behavioural profiling has never led to the direct apprehension of a serial killer, a murderer, or a spree killer, so it seems to have no real-world value.” Clearly they never saw Silence of the Lambs.

Nima: Never saw Mindhunter. Exactly. So you don’t need proof that it works, you need proof that people think it works, right?

Adam: Right, and the one thing of course that it ignores is institutional influences, for example, the relationship between serial killers or murderers in those with military service. According to the Radford/FGCU Annual Report on Serial Killer Statistics for the year 2020, former military members are disproportionately represented among known US serial killers. Approximately 17 percent as opposed to 7.3 percent in the general population, so it’s about two and a half times more likely. 19.3 percent of male serial killers served in the military compared to 13.4 percent of men in the general population. And which countries produce the most serial killers are those marked by histories of violence and colonial violence. Number one is the US, with an estimated 3,204 serial killers, followed by England, with an estimated 166, then South Africa, 117.

So those institutional factors, which are by no means the whole story, if not even most of the story, they are a factor, but a factor that is, of course, oftentimes ignored for obvious political reasons.

Nima: Now, quote-unquote “patterned” violent crime like serial killing, while capturing a glut of media attention and a common target for criminal profilers, is comparatively rare of course. Even the FBI acknowledges that serial killings are estimated to comprise less than one percent of all murders committed in any given year. Yet the focus on them — and associated archetypes like the murderer whose mother didn’t hug him enough — and on the unpredictability of their actions, ensures that there will always be a need for not only tough-on-crime policing, but more and more stories that lift up criminal profiling of serial killers to capture the public imagination.

Adam: Yeah, because, you know, what’s the first thing someone says when you say, you know, I believe in defunding the police or police abolition? ‘Well, what about serial killers?’

Nima: ‘What about serial killers? What would you do then?’

Adam: So the fact that they’re less than 1 percent of 1 percent of all crime, sort of gives a false impression that these things are very prevalent. Now, of course, we like serial killers because they’re not predictive, they’re kind of out of the norm or they can kind of come from nowhere, and that kind of tawdry titillating effect is why they’re so popular in the popular culture. The problem is that the assumption that these things are common begins to permeate and trickle down into people’s broader understandings of who police are and what police do.

Nima: And of course the, you know, centering of police and FBI and their radical techniques that then become standardized, this kind of criminal profiling, again, does the copaganda work of valorizing policing, of saying this is a profession that is so crucially needed, not only is it about stopping crime and saving people’s lives, but also look at the science behind it? This isn’t just beat cops, this is about psychology, this is about human nature, we need these people doing this thing to keep society safe.

Adam: Yeah, because what is the FBI? The FBI is 15, 20, 30 times more likely to be spending its time trying to entrap a mentally unwell Muslim into committing a fake terror plot than they are going out and finding serial killers or spree killers or even a killer at all. I mean, this is not really what they spend their time doing for the most part. Obviously, they do other things, they do kidnapping, sex trafficking, et cetera, but they also spend their time making up a lot of bullshit plots, you know, setting up Cletus to try to kidnap the governor of Michigan et cetera, and this is not something you’re going to see in popular depictions for obvious reasons. It’s not very entertaining. It’s also not copaganda so it’s a bit of a dual problem for them. And this is one of the problems with the whole profiling trope is that it heavily inflates the kind of science behind what most prosecutions are, as we showed with Episode 94 on the pseudoscience of TV forensics, for the most part, the vast majority of time, the forensics are not used to find the killer or the bad guy, they already have the bad guy in mind and custody and then they use the pseudoscience to then prove their case along with the prosecution for the jury. Just the same, psychological profiles are more often used to justify why they’re going after or want to prosecute a criminal versus some cold case where they use it to then whittle down a suspect of thousands and I think that fundamental misunderstanding of how the pseudosciences and sciences and quasi-science — I think it’s fair to say quasi-science — how they’re depicted in pop culture versus how they’re used in reality, because if we saw how they’re used reality, we would have a less romantic and sexy vision of police.

Nima: To discuss this more, we’re now going to be joined by Tom MacMillan, Senior Analyst on the Investigations team at Transparentem, a Brooklyn-based human rights organization. Previously a journalist for over a decade, his writing has appeared in New York Magazine’s Vulture and TheCut, as well as The Wall Street Journal, Esquire and Cosmopolitan. Tom will join us in just a moment. Stay with us.


Nima: We are joined now by Tom McMillan. Tom, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Tom McMillan: Great to be here.

Tom MacMillan

Adam: So your 2017 Vulture article detailed the increasing skepticism of the practice of psychological profiling, and positions it in the public mind as a kind of pop culture phenomenon of sorts. So I kind of want to begin there, assuming the science behind it is at worst junk and at best overhyped, we know for sure that, of course, media consumers can’t get enough of the criminal profiler trope. So my first question is, why do you think it has such a grip on screenwriters for sort of non-copaganda reasons? Just in general.

Tom McMillan: I think there are several parts to it. So the first is biggest and most obvious, you know, we’re in this moment of insatiable hunger for true crime storytelling. I mean, you can see it in TV, podcasts, streaming, it’s a formula that just keeps getting produced. Why do people love true crime? There’s a lot of theories about that, you know, people enjoy experiencing fear in a safe environment. There’s an interesting gender component too. Women are the major fan base of true crime, and there’s theories about that, that it’s a dangerous world for women, and they’re picking up tips about how to protect themselves or it’s a way to process the fear of living in that world. So that’s the first part. And then the other part of this is that in addition to just this fascination with true crime, there’s also this fascination with the serial killer in particular, and maybe this is just the kind of escalation of the genre, you know, it’s an advanced genre at this point, we need more and more powerful doses of this drug to get the same high from it, and so if a normal murder is compelling, then, you know, how much more fascinating is this series of murders, but it is strange, you know, I mean, serial killings, as you probably know, are just a tiny fragment of murders and crimes that are committed. So it’s odd that they’re such a big part of, quote, “true crime.” I mean, it’s almost as if there was a whole genre of shows about being hit by a meteor or struck by lightning or something. So serial killers have this outsized hold on the popular psyche, there’s a fascination with true crime, and people seem to want to get closer and closer to serial killers, and, you know, feel the rush of the fear, and how much closer can you get then, you know, into the mind of the serial killer. So there’s that. But then, and then finally, you know, having created this terrifying, bogeyman to fear, you know, the serial killer who is almost sort of supernaturally cunning and devious, and well, then you need a, you know, you need to create a sort of correspondingly powerful hero, and there has to be protector who gives the viewer some sense of control over this thing that seems so scary, and then in steps the police armed with these scientific techniques, and this kind of superhuman abilities that are equally matched to the power of the serial killer.

Nima: Yeah, I really like the idea of the profiler as almost a super cop. It’s not based on just the boring policing technique, it has this, as you said, this almost heroic, supernatural ability to match the villain that they are seeking. Why is that so necessary and why is it that common police techniques just are insufficient to say capture the public imagination, so there has to be this kind of outsized profiler trope coupled with this very elevated supervillain of the serial killer?

Tom McMillan: Yeah, I think part of it is the police work is just really boring. I mean, real life, police work is kind of very tedious. In the article, I talked about the beginnings of this, of the world of criminal profiling, and it started with this guy that was known as the Mad Bomber, and he planted all these bombs for 16 years in the ’40s and ’50s, and the police turned to the psychiatrist and didn’t know what to do and, you know, he created the what is now seen as sort of the first profile, and he got some things right, he got some things wrong, but it sort of took hold in the imagination. But actually, the interesting thing about that is that the person who actually cracked the case was this woman who was assigned this sort of boring task of going through old Con Edison personnel files, the guy who was arrested was a former Con Ed employee, and she came across this language in these complaints that were from an ex employee who claimed to have been injured, and the language there matched some of the letters that the Mad Bomber had written. So that’s sort of a less interesting police show, you know, going through endless mounds of paperwork and being like, ‘Oh, yeah, I guess this sort of matches up here.’

Nima: Reading, the real investigative tool.

Tom McMillan: Yeah.

Adam: Yeah, because one of the things we’ve come across, we did a whole episode on a lot of the dubious science of forensics, specifically, bite mark matching, blood splatter, so there’s obviously a spectrum of bullshit, and those things are kind of on the absolute total 100 percent bullshit, just a fake thing end of the spectrum. In researching that episode, and talking to experts and people who, you know, were defense attorneys, what we realized was that, in many ways, the pseudoscience is actually for the consumption of juries, it’s actually less about actually finding the bad guy. It’s about building a narrative for conviction, rather than actually starting off cold and having to find someone. You typically have one or two people you think do it and you sort of go out and find the evidence to support that. I’m curious, in your research, to what extent does criminal profiling kind of act a little bit like that as well? I mean, I know that the FBI has used it for cases like the Unabomber or a lot of some of the serial killer cases in the ’80s, where there really is kind of no leads, and it’s very cold, but to what extent in your research have you viewed it as a way of kind of a marketing tool for police work as well, that sort of gives the public more broadly, not even juries, necessarily, but gives the public a false impression as to the thoroughness of psychology as a mechanism of kind of finding your man?

Tom McMillan: Yeah, yeah, there is for sure, this distortion, and yeah, it has an effect on juries and it can be misused, you know, from top to bottom. There’s a distortion that happens when police show up, and if they believe in this stuff, then they say, ‘Oh, okay, let’s get a profiling here,’ and the profiler may have some dubious skills, but the police can get this kind of tunnel vision and confirmation bias where they’re like, ‘Okay, the profile said this, and we need to focus on this,’ and then you start to drift away from the facts and towards the sort of thing that you want to believe, and that happens in the investigation, obviously, and it can happen again in the courtroom, where you have a overzealous prosecutor who really wants to sell this “science,” quote-unquote, of profiling, and then you also have a jury of people who have watched a lot of CSI and Mindhunter, and all these other shows, and so they’re primed to sort of swallow this, and then the distortion starts in the crime scene and goes all the way through to the courtroom.

Adam: Yeah, because your piece specifically plays off of Mindhunter, the David Fincher show on Netflix that ran for two seasons.

Nima: It might be coming back, incidentally.

Adam: Oh, okay, good. That really kind of lent a lot of gravitas to the sort of science element of it, because it’s sort of supposedly seen as a kind of realistic portrayal of the origins of institutionalized FBI sanctioned, criminal profiling. You notice that, one thing you comment on in your article, which was very surprising to me reading it, was that, basically, that the reason why they built up the profile such that it was is because they actually went around and interviewed white men between the ages of 20 and 35 with a certain preconceived idea of what a serial killer is, and that became the basis for decades of criminal profiling, that you say, really kind of distorted the perception, and in fact, in the case of the beltway sniper, was one of the rare cases of reverse racial profiling not working out, and you say, sort of polluted the sort of perceptions about what people were looking for based on how the dataset was originally obtained.

Tom McMillan: The important thing to note there is, you know, this is a self-selecting group of psychopaths and these are people who, they’re being interviewed because they are supposedly cunning and manipulative, and there’s every reason to believe that if they were that, then it persisted into the police interview, and the police themselves may have been manipulated while they were interviewing. But at any rate, they emerged with this profile.

Nima: They also had all been caught, which I think kind of also leads to the trope of like, ‘Oh, serial killers always want to be caught,’ which is itself kind of like a profiling trope that we see all the time.

Tom McMillan: So the profile that emerged and took hold was this sort of, okay, we’re looking for a white man in, you know, his 20s to 30s, et cetera, et cetera, the stereotype that you’re familiar with. But this is not always the case, and in fact, serial killers are not always white. You mentioned the beltway sniper. In that case, the police were looking for a white man in his ’20s or ’30s in a white van. But it turned out it was a pair of unemployed, two, a pair of unemployed black men, one of the 17 and one was 40. So neither was in their ’20s or ’30s and they were in a sedan. But these guys, they had actually been pulled over and let go because they didn’t meet the profile, and so yeah, there is an interesting racial element here to this, and I think there’s some way that serial killers have been coded as these criminal masterminds, you know, they’re so cunning and devious, and they are these criminal geniuses, and so it follows given the racism in our society that okay, well, this person is a genius, they must be a white man.

Adam: Yeah, there was, ever since Silence of the Lambs, it’s like, ‘Oh, you know, he’s a bad guy who is British, and he listens to Mozart while he’s eating brain,’ and it’s so, it’s like we want them to sort of be classy.

Nima: And he’s putting these clever puzzles together and possibly codes and word games.

Adam: Yeah, it’s so much more fun to sink into a story where the serial killer is basically Frasier. Yeah, because that’s one of the things, you know, you talked about how you can make, there are almost certainly far more stories about serial killers then there have been actual serial killers. And of course, the amount of serial killers has dropped precipitously in the last few decades, or at least what we perceive as being a serial killer. There’s lots of debate about why that is. But it’s extremely rare, which kind of leads to the bigger issue that we have, which is maybe not necessarily the fault of one particular screenwriter or creator necessarily, but in the aggregate over time, it does sort of give a very, very false impression of what the FBI spends most of its time doing, and what police work is spends most of its time doing, which is kind of be expected, I mean, you know, you mentioned that it’s like building an entire genre of meteor strikes, but you know, there were four Jaws movies about shark attacks, and those are, those are probably more rare than serial killers. So fear is not of course a rational thing. So I want to be fair, because we’re trying to, you know, we don’t want to dismiss it out of hand. One question I did want to ask is, in your research, or you’re talking to experts, in the interest of fairness, what are the practical, if any, reasons for criminal profiling? Is there a way it can be done in a manner that is not prejudicial or foreclosing on potential avenues of investigation? Could it potentially get innocent people out of jail? Does it have any kind of moral utility or is it more or less just kind of bullshit?

Tom McMillan: It does have some utility. The thing that I found from talking with researchers is that it’s sort of a couple of counterintuitive things, is that one is that it’s really, really difficult to learn about a perpetrator’s mind from the crime scene, you might think you could step into a crime scene and be like, ‘Oh, it’s a mess, this person has a messy mind,’ but you can learn some things from physical evidence, of course, and forensic science has its limits there too. But you know, the field of psychology is sort of murky enough when the subject is sitting right in front of you and you can interview them, that to look at a crime scene and say, ‘Oh, this person is an obsessive compulsive, look how neat it is’ or ‘this person is filled with shame or hates their mother,’ or you know, whatever, it’s almost always a bridge too far. The other interesting thing is that what people have found is that crime scene behavior doesn’t really match day to day behavior. And similar crime scenes don’t lead to similar criminals.

Adam: Right.

Tom McMillan: So people’s behavior is really shaped more in response to situations and circumstances than it is to fixed personality traits. So it’s very hard to, again, to draw conclusions about a person’s personality based on their behavior in a crime scene or in a certain situation. But having said all that, the experts I spoke with said that criminal profiling does have some utility, mostly it’s kind of a mixed bag, but it can be used as long as it’s with some, you know, some understanding of limitations. So for instance, I talked to this one FBI profiler, and he said he has a certain area of success where he limits himself to a very particular expertise, which is sexual murders of elderly women, he’s sort of figured out the kind of people that commit these crimes, or so he claims, and you know, so that was an example of a guy who seemed to be placing some limits on himself in understanding how this tool could be used and where it might go astray. But I should mention this guy, a former FBI profiler, his testimony was also used to send an innocent man to jail for murder. In his defense, he said that his role in the prosecution on that case was sort of overblown and he later found out some things about how the police hadn’t interviewed everyone at the crime scene, and he wrote his report based on, you know, faulty information.

Nima: I would say that if I was talking to an investigative journalist as well.

Tom McMillan: Yeah. It needs to be, anyway, it needs to be treated carefully, and with some healthy skepticism at every stage like we mentioned, from the crime scene and all the way into the courtroom.

Nima: So interestingly enough, I think, you know, one of the things that this particular profiler that you spoke to also said, which is in your great piece, is this quote, “It’s not a science, but there are scientific aspects to it,” end quote. Gets back to what we’ve been saying about the utility of it say with, you know, in police departments or in the FBI and then the perception of it in pop culture and how it is seen as being empirical or scientific in its utility and its success rate, and I think that that’s what gives this impression of, ‘Oh, this is like a different level of investigation, we can really take this seriously.’ But of course, it’s always really centered on these fantastic and larger than your average crime crimes, because it needs that storytelling to capture the imagination.

Tom McMillan: Yeah, and again, we need to be wary of this kind of storytelling on the TV screen and recognize that it’s not real life and then again, in the courtroom and recognize that okay, this might be a very motivated prosecutor who’s weaving a story here, and is going to convince a jury full of people who have been watching a lot of CSI and other crime shows like this.

Nima: Right, exactly, and Criminal Minds. We will leave it there. This has been so great. We’ve been speaking with Tom MacMillan, Senior Analyst on the Investigations team at Transparentem, a Brooklyn-based human rights organization. Prior to that, for many years, his writing appeared in New York Magazine’s Vulture and TheCut, The Wall Street Journal, Esquire and Cosmopolitan. Tom, thanks again for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Tom McMillan: Great to be here. My pleasure. Thanks, guys.


Adam: Yeah, I think I think the whole thing is obviously very titillating. I mean, I liked the first season of Mindhunter. It’s like, they’re going to go get into the minds, it’s all very sort of cerebral.

Nima: Yeah, this idea that there is this uber heroism of police or of FBI profilers to even be able to do this kind of detective work, right? It’s not just your physical evidence, or you know, recreating a crime scene to tell a story, it’s that you are literally getting inside the intentions, inside the emotions, inside the personal histories that you have to figure out of your killer or of your criminal, and so it’s all sexed up when it’s a serial killer, but obviously, there are implications when it’s not one of those incredibly, incredibly rare occurrences that have just outsized presence in our pop culture and media imagination of how brain forensics works.

Adam: Yeah, we like to think that through this kind of mystical ontology, we can categorize human behavior into some predictive metric, and, you know, empirically, it’s just not really true. Which brings us of course, to our next guest.

Nima: Yes, so we will now be joined by our second guest of the episode, Chris Fabricant, Director of Strategic Ligation at the Innocence Project and author of the new book, Junk Science and the American Criminal Justice System, which was published in April 2022, just last month, from Akashic Books.


Nima: We are now joined by Chris Fabricant. Chris, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Chris Fabricant: Thank you so much for having me.

Adam: Like a lot of police techniques, criminal profiling has come under increased scrutiny of late for its dubious scientific basis, and more relevant to our interests as a media criticism podcast, we argue at the top of the show that it has sort of given the public a distorted view of how police kind of actually quote-unquote “get their man.” So I want to begin by talking about criminal profiling as a practice, how it’s been used historically, and how maybe some people in the public defense world are pushing back against some of its broad claims, obviously, most well known in pop culture products, Netflix shows, et cetera.

Chris Fabricant

Chris Fabricant: You know, the modern popularity of so-called criminal profiling began really like a lot of unreliable forensic techniques around the 1970s, where you had this explosion of our legal system in this country generally on the civil side, resulted in a lot of personal injury litigation and mass tort litigation, and on the criminal side, you had explosion of the drug war and mass incarceration policies and what that led to was really whole cottage industries of expert witnesses that were fanning out around the country, making their livings testifying as experts in a lot of very dubious techniques, including what the FBI be termed behavioral analysis, and they call themselves behavioral analysts, and they have a behavioral analyst unit at the FBI, and the idea was really that they were going to be able to predict personality traits and actions of people and potential suspects and trying to divine what kind of person would have committed this type of an offense, and there was almost no scientific testing or research that demonstrated the reliability of this. It was just really a lot of folklore, a lot of anecdotal evidence, there was a lack of statistical basis for the claims, in other words, that there wasn’t a predictive value to how often they got it right and how often they got it wrong, it was just somebody with an opinion, and you know, even since that time, the few studies that exist really fail to make clear that the so-called experts in the field are any better than you or I would be at predicting the behavior of people, and a lot of it is based on basic logic that any juror could come to themselves, and it gets dressed up as scientific evidence or expert witness testimony that has a lot more persuasive power with a jury, but really no more valuable than their own logic would dictate.

Nima: Yeah, you know, you’ve been seeing this for years in your work, you write about this in your book, can you tell us about the real life implications of this kind of junk science, this kind of turning what is not just this sort of profiling technique, but made into this sort of fantastic way inside the criminal mind, you know, where have you seen this from, say, Ted Bundy all the way to Shadwick King?

Chris Fabricant: Yeah, you know, I mean, it can be used really two ways, right? It’s when you don’t have a suspect, you know, it’s some speculation about what kind of person would have done this or, you know, the profile of a person, but it can also be used when there is a suspect to paint a bull’s eye around that suspect, and then it becomes more like police work that’s dressed up as scientific testimony or expert witness testimony, and that’s where it’s really the most dangerous. So that was the Shadwick King case in Illinois, where the criminal profiler reconstructed this crime then offered expert witness testimony that pointed the finger at the defendant unmistakably. So that type of testimony really invades the province of a jury and the jury whose job is to decide what happens, and often an expert witness, a criminal profiler, will take over that role for the jury, and that’s unconstitutional, and then you’ve seen it used historically so many times and failed so many times. That’s what’s really astonishing. It shouldn’t astonish me anymore really, given the history of so many forensic techniques in this country that demonstrated failure tends not to discredit that technique entirely. It’s, you know, usually written off as, you know, a mistake or a bad apple or, you know, one off or just ignore it entirely. But the examples that I write about in my book, were, you know, Ted Bundy is a great example where he was supposed to be the product of a domineering mother and uneducated and single and the rest, you know, and he was a law student and his mother was doting, and if you look at the Unabomber, you know, there was the FBI profile of the Unabomber, when they hadn’t actually identified the suspect, was somebody that was described as uneducated, you know, he had a PhD in mathematics. Then in 1999, there were three women that were murdered in Yosemite National Park, the FBI provided a profile of that. They pointed to, you know, specific profiles of killers, you know, drug dealing, biker gangs, right? So that sounds good. You know, I mean, that would make sense to you and me, and probably the lay public, if you have, you know, drug dealing, biker gangs, that sounds like dangerous pack that you wouldn’t want to mess with, but the person who actually did this was a local handyman who didn’t deal drugs or belong to a biker gang, he confessed to the killings, and no bikers and no drug dealers had anything to do with it. So that we still use this all the time, it speaks to how convenient it can be to plug holes in weak cases, that’s the use of all junk science really, is that you have a weak case, a circumstantial case, and you need to dress it up with some scientific evidence.

Nima: Right, because it’s more of a storytelling technique than an investigative technique.

Chris Fabricant: Exactly right. And so you want to connect dots that may or may not connect, right, that should or should not be connected, and the idea is, is that the logical inferences that can or can’t be made are there for the jury to make. You know, I mean, if you put it in as expert witness testimony, then the jury turns off its critical thinking skills, and it listens to the story, right? And storytelling is, you know, it’s a point that I make throughout the book, you know, it’s really, really persuasive. This is how human beings have learned throughout human history, is through stories, and what happens when you tell a good story and a logical story is that we tend not to question the gaps in the story because it makes logical sense, you know, I mean, all junk science has superficial appeal. It’s logical. If you think of something like bite mark evidence, it’s, you think that ‘Well, if I saw a bite mark on skin, and I found teeth that match that bite mark, you know, I would know who the killer is or the biter.’ That turns off critical thinking like, ‘Oh, wait, that bite mark changed, it changes every minute, it changes every day with a decomposing body, it changes every minute with a healing body, right, and it might match one minute and might not match next.’ That’s the most basic critical thinking around this technique that’s been around for 50 years, and I’ve never read a cross examination that even questioned that. So this is the problem when you have expert witness testimony dressed up as really what is a prosecution theory to tell a story through the guise of an expert witness.

Adam: Right, and so let’s zoom out here a little bit because the storytelling false perceptions, of course, don’t just apply on a case by case basis but begin to permeate in the pop culture at large, and obviously, millions and millions of people consume criminal profiling content from Silence of the Lambs to Netflix’s Inside of a Criminal Mind to Mindhunter, these millions and millions of people, of course end up on juries. Now, from a screenwriter’s perspective, it’s obvious why screenwriters love criminal profiler stories, because they’re cool, they’re badass, the idea that you can sort of look at a bunch of disparate clues in a murder scene and find out that somebody wasn’t hugged by their mother is kind of, it’s just cool, right? It sounds cool. It’s a puzzle and people like puzzles, right? So it’s human nature. But eventually, in the aggregate, we argue in the show, perhaps to death, that that begins to pollute the public’s perception of what actual police work is, and you talk a little bit about how, in many ways, it’s tautological and kind of a prosecution device as opposed to this cold narrowing of suspects, looking at a conspiracy chalkboard with a bunch of red yarn and pictures, as most people perceive it. From your experience — and obviously, this influences not just the public and jurors, but lawmakers as well — to what extent do you feel, and I know it’s hard to speculate and forgive me, but to what extent do you feel that the prevalence of these pseudo sciences, whether it be criminal profiling or others, really does inform how the average person believes police work actually happens?

Chris Fabricant: It’s a huge problem. I mean, there’s scholarship that’s entirely devoted to what’s known as the CSI effect, right? And the idea there is, you know, really, it depends on if you ask a defense attorney or if you ask a prosecutor.

Adam: Right, because prosecutors say it’s the opposite problem, but that sounds like bullshit to me.

Chris Fabricant: Yeah. So prosecutors will say that, you know, because of shows like CSI that the expectation that jurors have when they come into any case is that there will be scientific evidence that will point to guilt, and that if they don’t have that then their case is automatically weakened so they have to continue using the same unreliable evidence, otherwise they’re going to get acquittals. And the defense perspective on this is, which is one that I subscribe to, is that these shows depict forensics as infallible, and they are depicted as infallible in court too, let’s be clear, but the shows are absurdly so, in shows like CSI, you know, I mean, where the evidence is never questioned, the evidence is never subject to interpretation. It’s always accurate, it’s always reliable, and it always catches the bad guy. You know, a really good, astonishing example of the influence of popular culture on the general public is Forensic Files, where that is a nonfiction show, and so what it does is that it focuses on cases that have been allegedly solved by forensic evidence, whiz-bang forensic techniques, and, you know, if you’ve worked at the Innocence Project as long as I have, crimes are not solved necessarily through jury verdicts, you know, I mean, and so, but they are on Forensic Files, and we were investigating Alfred Swinton’s case in Connecticut and did so went on to the Forensic Files episode that he was featured in, and he was depicted as a serial killer and they were trying to put something like eight bodies on him, and you know, he’d only been convicted of one murder and that was only on some minor other evidence, but essentially, only on bite mark evidence, and if you’re skeptical about bite mark evidence, like we were, you know, he looked innocent in the Forensic Files. So we picked up his case, it was essentially an intake show for us, and when he was exonerated about a year and a half later, you know, he’s innocent, and then you could still watch the Forensic Files episode depicting him as a murderer, a serial murderer for the next five years. I wrote to Bill Curtis, the guy from Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me… who used to be the host of that show, I was like, ‘Hey, Bill, my innocent client is on your show being depicted as, you know, a serial killer, why don’t you take it down,’ but he never got back to me and then finally, a Washington Post article came out, and I guess they were shamed into taking it down, but they never acknowledged that.

Nima: Wow.

Chris Fabricant: The, you know, another client of mine was on Forensic Files. We’re litigating the case right now, Jimmy Genrich, in Grand Junction, Colorado, which is the only evidence connecting him to a series of bombings in that late ’80s and early ’90s is handheld toolmark evidence that claimed that one wire stripper made one mark on one bomb, to the exclusion of every other wire stripper ever manufactured in the history of time, and the mark that they matched it to was 1/100 of an inch. That’s the only evidence, right? So that type of show and that’s, you know, allegedly, well it is nonfiction, but it’s depicting a lot of very speculative evidence that was used to convict in many of the episodes, including the two that I just mentioned. And then you combine that with shows, the fictional shows that, you know, are never in doubt and then in popular culture that focuses on forensics just in regular media reporting, you know, you hear the word DNA, and it’s automatically assumed to be conclusive, reliable and absolute, but there are issues with tiny amounts of DNA and DNA mixtures as well. So if we’re going to use scientific evidence that includes criminal profiling or anything else, you know, I mean, well we should not be using criminal profiling in cases period, but if we’re going to be using other forms of scientific evidence, we have to be comfortable with uncertainty, and we have to be willing to go back and correct the record when the process of science undermines our previously held beliefs, and our justice system does not like to do that, and that’s really what makes my job very difficult.

Adam: No, no, you definitely don’t want to admit you’re wrong, because then that calls into question everything else that prosecutors, police and system has done beforehand, which is very messy.

Nima: It’s pretty amazing Chris that you all were, you know, watching Forensic Files and like, you’re like, oh, okay, there’s a next client, because that is total bullshit.

Chris Fabricant: Isn’t that incredible? I read the newspaper the same way.

Nima: Yeah. Well, and it kind of leads me to my next question, which is relatedly, yes, we’ve been talking about narrative shows, cop procedurals, Netflix series, but also on Netflix, there are a number of more kinds of documentary style, right? Like Forensic Files, kind of, and dedicated recently to this idea of brain mapping, to find and predict — what else? — quote-unquote “the criminal mind.” This new Netflix show Inside the Criminal Mind — of course, it has to be called that — really pushes this idea that if you look at the map of a killer’s brain, you’ll show, you know, elevated levels of psychopathic behavior and reduction of empathy, and you know, you use all these techniques and you predict whether someone’s going to be a murderer or rapist, et cetera. Now, one very popular proponent of this theory, is the psychologist Dr. Adrian Raine, he’s been all over the media promoting this idea, especially through this Netflix series Inside the Criminal Mind, Chris, as the Director of Strategic Litigation at the Innocence Project, what are your thoughts about this type of quote-unquote “scientific technique,” the pushing of this theory, and its increased use in documentary style series like what Netflix is currently putting out? And this is also all over.

Adam: Literally a criminal mind, literally a mind where you can look at it and say, ‘That’s a criminal, literally.’

Nima: Exactly. That is the mind of a criminal. Now, you’ve been talking, of course, about how the production of these types of shows influences not only lawmakers and jurors, but also I’m sure police themselves, what do you think the effect of this is, and, you know, what can we do about this kind of brain mapping horseshit?

Chris Fabricant: It’s totally terrifying. I mean, totally terrifying, because, you know, like a lot of nascent science, you know, it’s exciting, you know, I mean, this in terms of, just from a pure research perspective, right? So, putting aside all the parade of horribles that flow from this, you know, the type of evidence is that we don’t really understand the human mind, you know, it’s really one of the great frontiers of science. So I would be the last person to argue that we shouldn’t be studying extensively, you know, how the human mind works. But to be using that evidence to predict criminal behavior is just totally terrifying in all the ways that are obvious, but also in ways that what will happen is that there will be a case, and that will become an important element to the case, either for the defense or for the prosecution, and it will wind its way into court and the courts have been terrible since the dawn of science in court at excluding unreliable evidence. Courts have, for a generation, punted that decision to the jury and let the jury sort it out, and what you have is general, widespread scientific illiteracy in this country generally. Certainly lawyers are no exception of this, and jurors are no exception either, right? And so what you have is a bunch of lawyers that are trying to suss out what’s real and what’s not real from the only person that has any idea what they’re talking about, presumably, is the expert witness on the witness stand but that expert has his or her own ideas, their own theories that haven’t been tested through the scientific method, haven’t been subjected to the rigorous peer review that we’d need to demonstrate reliability, and that type of testimony is so esoteric, and it appeals to our sense of, you know, what I think there is an intuitive sense that we all have, probably wrong, that yeah, that makes sense, you know, that part of the brain lights up when you’re feeling like a psychopath, right? And that part of the brain you have less of that type of a brain, you know, because you’re a kleptomaniac, you know, or you’re a sex addict so this part of the brain lights up, right? You know, I mean, I think that if you took a general poll of the public, they would see, ‘Yeah, that makes some sense,’ or ‘I think there’s some evidence of that,’ right? But I haven’t read anything that suggests that this is ready for criminal trials, you know, I mean, and then putting aside, really, you know, the idea of reliability and validity issues is the morality of using this type of evidence, which obviously can be grossly misused. So I find it terrifying, I find it terrifying in a country that still has the death penalty, and a country that locks up 2.3 million people at any given time, and our response to violent crime is always to lock up more people, even though that’s never worked. So putting another so-called scientific instrument in the hands of a system that has proven again and again, to be a killing machine, really, you know, I mean, and, you know, in promoting structural racism and mass incarceration, you know, and junk science is just another tool of that, and here’s another generation of really, really dangerous technology that must be studied very, very carefully, and used in a way that will advance our lives as human beings, but that type of predictive policing type behavior, there’s a reason, not just that reliability issues are at stake as far as something like a polygraph goes, but that’s really the province of a jury too, you know, I mean, like what we’re supposed to rely on juries for is to decide disputed facts, and what the courts are supposed to do is exclude a scientific or expert witness testimony that hasn’t been demonstrated to be valid and reliable, and when we do have good gatekeeping, and we are keeping out speculative science, and we’re allowing the jury to do their jobs, and that just means deciding disputed facts, you’re going to have more just outcomes, and so that’s really what I think about brain scanning.

Nima: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I’m so glad you brought up the idea that so much of this just feeds the mass incarceration machine, and that there is such, we’ve been talking about criminal profiling, but also, as you brought up, you know, racial profiling is such a huge component to this, right, Chris? I mean, so many of the TV shows we’ve been talking about, or the movies we’ve been talking about have this sort of, you know, oh, a serial killer is always a white guy in his mid ’30s, right? And so much of the kind of criminal profiling entertainment is focused on that but what criminal profiling is so often used for is not to go after the very rare cases of serial killers, but to profile, you know, entire communities of people.

Adam: Are you suggesting police just don’t go after Upper West Side doctors like they do in Law and Order?

Nima: What!? (Laughs.) Dun, dun. Well, right. I mean, like, as you were talking, Chris, I was thinking about the Dwayne Buck case, right? Where the expert psychologist, Walter Quijano, was brought in by the defense, mind you, the defense counsel expert, who testified that Dwayne Buck represented a danger in the future, right, you could kind of judge future dangerousness under Texas law at the time, and the psychologist, you know, was like, ‘Oh, well, yeah, there is an over representation of Blacks among violent offenders, therefore he is more dangerous, he will be, could be more dangerous in the future,’ purely by the fact that he’s Black, and you know, Dwayne Buck was sentenced to death row, subsequently overturned, but, you know, is that sort of thing that like, it’s not just this like serial killer trope, but actually, in reality, not only is it junk science, but it winds up affecting entire modes of policing, modes of oppression.

Chris Fabricant: Absolutely. You know, I’d be remiss to fail to mention that Dwayne Buck’s case was argued by my boss, the Executive Director of the Innocence Project, Christina Swarns, in the United States Supreme Court, which, you know, ended up with a very rare win in that court for the defense. The Dwayne Buck case, and similar cases, where you just have overt racism that’s kind of dressed up in criminal profiling is more rare. I think what’s more common is the everyday racism that you, me, and we all have, and that’s this implicit bias and the fear of and belief in the inherent criminality of Black men, particularly young Black men, and what you have with any kind of police activity or criminal investigation or witness identification is that implicit bias that so many of us share, and what we have with forensics is subjectivity, and there are virtually no forensic techniques that don’t involve subjectivity and some much more than others. Certainly criminal profiling is high amongst the list, it’s entirely subjective, and you don’t need to have, you know, an overt racist mindset for implicit bias to creep into everything, and a really good example of this is a recent study by Dr. Itiel Dror on forensic pathology, and to be very reductive and simplistic about what the study showed, is that where you have Black babies that show up in the ER with a certain set of symptoms, and you have white babies that show up with a certain set of symptoms, the Black babies caretakers get charged with homicides and the white babies parents go home, and the symptoms are the same. So that is the type of bias that I think is much more widespread than the overt bias that was implicit, I mean, throughout the Dwayne Buck and many others like that, and I don’t want to say that that’s rare. It’s not that rare, but what I’m talking about is every day, and that’s every cop that’s white and Black, that are pulling over suspects, right, or stopping people on the street, it’s 400 years of history, you know, I mean, it’s the arc from slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration, you know, I mean, that arc is very explicit and very clear. So it’s gotten progressively, you know, apart from the last few years, where suddenly it seems to be okay to be, you know, overtly racist again, but the general arc had been that we’re not using the N word out loud anymore, and we’re, you know, we’re claiming the anti racism as a value. But really, the implicit bias is all around us, it affects all of our decision making, not just in the criminal legal system, but everywhere. So in forensics, unlike our society, the fix is a lot easier, and that’s to blind the experts from irrelevant information that has nothing to do with the task at hand, and something like criminal profiling or the type of information that they use is all context, right, and no real empirical data, so something like that it’s going to draw on an investigators experience, you know, I mean, and Black people are over represented in our justice system. So there’s a feedback loop at issue there, too. So it’s really a toxic feedback loop.

Adam: I want to talk briefly, if you don’t mind, about this sort of trope of essentialism, which I think the criminal profile trope, and especially the kind of brain mapping stuff, really, and Law and Order does this all the time, SVU, that sort of the idea that you’re a fixed criminal, there’s a criminal mind that is fixed, and it’s not changeable. Now, of course, this flies in the face of any kind of concept of penance or reform or rehabilitation, and I really do think this idea that that when you say there’s sort of this intrinsic genetic thing you can map scientifically or that they fit a profile of a sociopathic killer, and I’m not saying there are extreme cases or someone who probably is not reformable, that happens, but it does seem like it would lead itself to lend ourselves to a culture where we want everyone who’s ever committed a quote-unquote “violent crime,” or really any crime, but quote-unquote “violent crime,” to go away forever, and lock them up, throw away the keys, and if you look at the sheer, and John Pfaff does a ton of work on this, just the sheer total tonnage of years we give people in this country for crimes, in far outstrips any other country, and I got to think there’s a bit of a relationship there with this idea of this essential criminal mind, reinforcing this idea that these things are fixed and known or formable, would therefore naturally, sort of, at least to me, create a public sentiment among voters and lawmakers that we should just lock them up and throw away the keys.

Nima: And of course, that it all has to do with an individual criminal mind and never having to do with anything systemic in our society.

Adam: Oh, right. Of course. Oh, God forbid, no, no, no, no, no, never anything about poverty or lead poisoning or anything like that. No, no.

Chris Fabricant: Right, phrenology is based on the same principles, right? You know, it’s reading bumps on heads. Because if you have that idea that there are just incorrigible people, they’re criminals or drug addicts, you know, I mean, that there’s really no salvation and they’re worthy of punishment really, and then blaming biology on it absolves the need to even consider rehabilitation or the systemic issues that led to the arrest to begin with, or anything else. It really just, it allows you to wash your hands of any responsibility as a society to confront some of the, as you point out, the systemic issues that lead to mass incarceration, you know, I mean, and so yes, you know, I guess I’m just agreeing with you.

Adam: Oh, well, that’s the only correct answer on the show. That’s what I like to hear.

Nima: (Laughs.) Well, before we let you go, Chris, let us know what you are up to at the Innocence Project currently, and how folks may be able to learn more, get involved, and of course, don’t forget to mention the name of your excellent book again so people can pick that up.

Chris Fabricant: Great, well, we’re at the Innocence Project, you know, I mean, we really have two missions, and that is to free, you know, the incalculable number of wrongfully convicted people, and we mentioned earlier, you know, how many, 2.3 million people are incarcerated, are in various forms of incarceration in this country, and if you think maybe only 1 percent have been wrongfully convicted you’re talking about tens of thousands of people, and the other part of our mission is to prevent future wrongful convictions and a lot of the work that I do around litigating against the use of unreliable forensics and also unreliable eyewitness identification and coercive interrogation techniques to lead to false confession. All this is an effort to prevent wrongful convictions. You know, I mean, our goal at the Innocence Project is to go out of business, is to become unnecessary, you know, and so the work that we do, and the work that we do in strategic litigation is really focused on the leading contributing factors to wrongful convictions. So eyewitness ID, false confessions, and, of course, unreliable forensics. And so, my book is really a pop culture book, it’s a storytelling book, it’s around trying to essentially create a new genre of, you know, untrue crime, and to demystify the mythology that’s been built up in popular culture around forensics and to present compelling stories in a way that are true, and that this is really what this type of evidence can result in if we don’t do the research and roll up our sleeves and take seriously the notion that how powerful scientific evidence is and how careful we must be when we decide to use it in the criminal justice system where life and liberty are at stake.

Nima: Well, we cannot thank you enough for joining us today. We’ve been speaking with Chris Fabricant, Director of Strategic Ligation at the Innocence Project and author of the new book, Junk Science and the American Criminal Justice System, out now from Akashic Books. Chris, thank you again for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Chris Fabricant: Thanks again for having me.


Adam: Yeah, if you ask most people they’ll be like, ‘Oh, well, clearly, it’s a movie. It’s not done accurate,’ but I do think over time, it does begin to sort of overemphasize how much and I’m sure if you did a poll of a thousand people and ask them, you know, what percentage of the time do you think cops catch murderers? It would be off by probably a factor of 10x to 20x, you know, wouldn’t even be close, versus a lot of police work, which is petty, nonviolent, or in the case of the FBI, manufacturing crime that otherwise wouldn’t exist.

Nima: Not only do cops seem to be even more brilliant, right? But criminals are even more sinister and irredeemable.

Adam: Yeah, people love puzzles, and it’s a form of a puzzle, and ostensibly has, you know, scientific basis and it’s high stakes and sexy. So.

Nima: Human beings as pattern seeking, storytelling animals works perfectly with the trope of criminal profiling.

Adam: Right. It is all those things.

Nima: You get your patterns and you get to tell the story and it all makes sense.

Adam: And it’s lurid, it’s a whodunit. Yeah, it’s got it all. Anyway, we can’t compete.

Nima: That will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Thank you all for listening. Of course you can follow us on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support through Patreon is so appreciated as we are 100 percent. And as always, a very special shout out goes to our critic level supporters on Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. The transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again for listening, everyone, we’ll catch you next time.


This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, May 11, 2022.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.




A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.

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Citations Needed

Citations Needed

A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.

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