The following is part of a weekly series on unsolved homicides and suspected homicide cases in Fayette County and the surrounding area.
During the past several months, the Herald-Standard has chronicled a series of unsolved killings that still resonate with readers today.
The cases have dealt with anything from seemingly random road rage killings to violent homicides.
Jason Manning, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of sociology at West Virginia University, specializing in conflict and violence.
Manning is well-versed in statistics and studies regarding most anything from serial killers to garden variety homicides, and said sociologists distinguish between moralistic and predatory homicides.
“Moralistic — that’s the guy killing someone because he shows him disrespect, the cheating spouse or the guy sleeping with his wife; he’s got a grievance. He’s angry at someone. It’s basically street punishment — private execution,” he said. “That’s actually the majority of severe violence in the U.S. Studies find that up to 80 percent of homicides arise out of that kind of conflict.”
Manning said moralistic cases often involve people that know each other. He said because they are around each other more often, there is a greater chance for conflict to evolve instantly, or for grievances to develop over time.
“Moralistic cases happen among people who have some relationship,” he said. “That’s why you get into conflicts. Most of your domestic cases would fall into that category. Yeah, sure you might have a case where you kill the spouse for the insurance money – that would be predatory. But most of the time it is one spouse who is cheating or wants a divorce, and the other gets upset and goes after them.”
Predatory homicides are motivated by money or thrill.
“Predatory homicide — that’s where you kill someone and take their money or get your jollies by torturing a victim. You treat people as a resource,” he said. “Usually there is no preexisting relationship there. Someone is picked because they look like a promising target — that’s all. You find these predatory cases are actually a minority of the violence cases. They tend to happen among strangers.”
Manning noted recent headlines originating in Oklahoma where some teenagers allegedly killed a college baseball player this week for fun or because they were bored.
“This appears to be a rare case where it looks recreational — they did it for fun,” he said. “It shocks so many people because that’s much of a rarer kind of thing.”
Manning said sociologists examine the structure of homicide cases — how a conflict between spouses is different than one between co-workers. He said the degree of relationship affects how people handle conflict.
Manning said in many social settings, violence is more common on behalf of superiors than inferiors. He said in highly patriarchal societies, it is common for men to use violence against their wives, but rare for wives to use violence against their husbands. Another example, he said, in old English society, it was acceptable for masters to beat their servants than the alternative.
“The likelihood of violence is greater on behalf of a superior than towards an inferior party,” he said. “People might complain high and low about their superiors — people who have more money, wealth and power – but rarely do they do they actually do something,” he said. “Yes, you do get upward violence like terrorism and assassinations, but compared to the volume of downward violence – that is actually smaller overall.”
Manning said the most severe violence is toward the weak.
“Guys fighting their equals in a bar, maybe a bruised knuckle because they square off against each other, fearful,” he said. “But when it is the strong against the weak — severe violence is not fair or glorious in the slightest. It’s someone taking advantage.”
Manning noted how society views a murder victim may affect the investigation. Recalling academic research from Mark Cooney, Ph.D., author of the article “How to commit a perfect murder,” Manning said high profile victims receive more attention than perhaps homeless victims. And that factor — the status of the victim — may influence why some people are killed, he said.
“If you are going to kill a cop, the police are going to find you, but if you kill a homeless person, not as much effort is put into that,” he said. “Predators might know that too. And some of them might be savvy enough to select their targets. There’s a reason Jack the Ripper went after prostitutes. First, access — they work on the streets. And second, the first couple of prostitutes that turn up dead does not exactly ring in the alarm bells.”
Manning cited a book by Richard Rhodes, “Why they kill,” about criminologist Lonnie Athens. He said in the book, Athens interviewed dozens of criminals, “the worst of the worst” to formulate his conclusions. Athens theorized, Manning said, that some people become violent after being brutalized and then coached as to how violence is a method to solving problems.
“These people are being brutalized while at the same time getting coaching that you got to use violence to solve this problems,” he said. “They reach a point where they used violence and they were successful. They liked the respect and fear they inspired after that, so they become very cocky belligerent people and their standards for provocation steadily dropped as they have more and more violent encounters. The first encounter may have been self defense, after that it became more and more casual.”
Manning said violence may occur more frequently in poor neighborhoods, though just because a neighborhood is less affluent does not mean residents have a predisposition toward resolving conflicts with violence. He said during recessions property crimes increase, but not violent crime rates.
However, Manning said, another factor that may be in play is how neighborhood view the law enforcement’s effectiveness.
“There may be a lack of a law enforcement presence in the community,” he said. “and people are not eager to involve the law in their conflicts.”
Manning said these neighborhoods have a different societal structure.
“People at the bottom live in a society that is sort of anarchic and resembles the time before the state arose when the only way to defend yourself and your family was to be the toughest guy around, be able to deter anyone who wanted to harm you,” he said.
If there is a silver lining, Manning said, it is that people are less violent today than they were 400 years ago — even 60 years ago. Manning cited a study by Bradley Campbell, a sociologist at California State University — Los Angeles. According to statistics compiled by Campbell, about five people per 100,000 were victims of homicide in 1950. That number spiked in the early 1980s and 1990s, but has tapered off to about six people in 2005.
“The violent crime rate is going down in America,” he said. “The murder rates have declined. The only places where you see higher statistics are in regions like Los Angeles which affect statistics everywhere. An average Joe walking out of an office building has less chance of getting killed than before.”