Saturday, April 11, 2009

Criminal Profilers Don't Profile on TV

by Pat Brown

The Sandra Cantu case took a bizarre twist today with the arrest of a female suspect. A 26-year-old Sunday school teacher, Melissa Huckaby, (pictured left) has been charged with kidnapping and murder. I am more than glad there has been arrest in this case and that there will be some justice for the family of Sandra.

But, as I was reading comments posted about this morning's news story, I noticed quite a few haranguing criminal profilers and police experts who had appeared on television for theorizing the crime was committed by a male sex offender (A similar bashing occurred after some television talking heads (not me) said they thought that an angry white man was responsible for the string of shootings eventually linked to John Muhammad and Lee Malvo) This time, the posters are claiming the experts are sexist; always blaming men for violent crime and they also accuse profilers as profiling the crime incorrectly. Criminal profiling is said to be bunk, and talking heads are brainless morons.

Let me address the issue of being sexist first. Sorry, guys, but most violent offenders are men, and that is a fact. Yes, women do commit crime, and women do kill, but the majority of violent criminals are men. It is just biology-- get over it.

Now, to profiling the Cantu case wrongly.. No one on television profiled the Sandra Cantu case. Experts were asked questions about what they thought might be possible, based on publicly released information (and often this is misinformation). The experts responded with a 30-second answer--on a good day, maybe a whole minute. They addressed some probability based on what they heard five seconds ago from a reporter's update on the story. A good portion of the time, a talking head is unable to provide in-depth commentary, and so the viewing public only gets a quickly tossed out idea; a thought which can stir interest in the topic and add to the discussion, but can hardly be considered a scientifically derived, carefully analyzed explanation of the events.

The Sandra Cantu case is a perfect example of this. I did a lot of interviews this week for CNN. Not one time during the last seven days did I ever give a profile of the child's murder or a profile of the killer. How's that, you say? Didn't I hear you give an answer when the host asked you to profile the homicide or the offender? Yes, I gave an answer, but it wasn't a profile. It was commentary. A profile is something one spends hours working on, sometimes weeks, sometimes months. A profile require access to all the case files, all the crime scene and autopsy photos, all interviews and reports. One doesn't profile a case and hand over to law enforcement an analysis that isn't based on evidence and scientific methodology (well, one shouldn't anyway). The final criminal profile should have each inference explained carefully and supported by the facts. Investigative avenues are then suggested based on the conclusions the profiler has arrived at. The profile should never infer that investigators not pursue all leads-- even those not aligning with the profile. Any profiler's theory, like any detective's theory, can turn out to be wrong (which is why it is called a theory) because certain evidence was unavailable, a piece of evidence was tampered with, or because there could be two explanations for the same evidence. The profile is to be an aid, a tool, and not an absolute.

One cannot profile on television because one has such limited information, and a good portion of it often turns out to be untrue. Even when one is profiling a case for law enforcement, a new piece of information can completely change the theory of what occurred. So you can imagine how difficult it is on television to be one hundred percent correct with one's conclusions.

Here is what I said about the Sandra Cantu case:

The killer lived in the trailer park. I based this conclusion on the abduction, the body dump site, and the suitcase. Sandra was unlikely to have left the park on her own, so her killer had reason to be there. The body was dumped just down the road, meaning the panicked killer wanted to get rid of her body quickly, but didn't want to go to take too long to do it. The killer also wanted to be comfortable dumping the body in a familiar area. The killer did not abduct Sandra using his car because if she had been killed in the car or at some outside location, the killer wouldn't have needed a suitcase to transport her; he would have just opened the door and pushed her out.

The accused killer of Sandra did live in the park. Melissa Huckaby was living in a trailer with her grandparents, the pastor of a local church and his wife. Her daughter also lived in the trailer home and often played with Sandra. Sandra was not pulled into any car, but visited the Huckaby home. Melissa Huckaby was the last person to see her and told the police that Sandra had stopped by to ask to play with her daughter, but she had told Sandra her daughter had some chores to do and she couldn't play right then.

Next, I said the killer likely killed Sandra within an hour of her going missing. I based my statement on two points. The first one is a general truism: when a child is abducted by a sexual predator they are almost always killed within an hour or two and sometimes within minutes. The assumption by almost everyone at that point in the news cycle was that Sandra had been abducted by a child predator because almost all little girls who go missing are killed by serial killers. The other reason I believed Sandra was dead within a short period of time was because she was fully clothed. I surmised the killer might have lost control of Sandra for some reason and tried to subdued her or lost control of his emotions and was too rough with Sandra. Sandra might have been killed without a sexual assault ever happening.

I felt the offender was not all that experienced and did not plan the crime. The offender was sloppy and careless and it seemed like the dumping of the body was out of panic and not particularly well thought out. It seems Ms. Huckaby possibly went off on Sandra for some unknown reason at her home, killed her, and then hurriedly got rid of her body.

The last answer I gave on Friday night was concerning the suitcase Huckaby claims she had left outside in the driveway and which was stolen. During the interview I was led to believe that a report had been made to the police concerning the suitcase theft on the day Sandra went missing. This bit of misinformation prevented me from considering Huckaby as a suspect. If Huckaby had used the suitcase to dump Sandra's body, she would NOT have reported it missing to the police. She did not expect the suitcase to be found, and she would not want to draw attention to her home. Until she thought the suitcase could be linked to her, she had no need to mention it.

So, based on the "fact" the suitcase had been reported missing and was the suitcase Sandra was found in, I surmised three things. One, Sandra definitely was dead quickly on the day she went missing (because someone needed a suitcase THAT day); two, the killer did not plan the crime; and three, the killer was inexperienced and not all that bright. I said something to this effect on CNN Headlines: "He probably grabbed her, something went wrong, he killed her, and now he had a body in his house and no way to get it out without being seen. He remembers seeing a suitcase out by the Huckaby house and thinks, yeah, okay, I will grab that (and psychopaths often do things impulsively because they see something or think something will be useful to them or because they find stealing not a big deal). So he jumps in his car, snatches the suitcase, comes back, puts Sandra's body in it, and zips out of the park to get rid of her body.

Well, that probably would have been the scenario IF the story about the suitcase theft being reported had been true. The next morning, I learned that Huckaby had been arrested, and that she had not reported the suitcase missing, or even mentioned it, until after the suitcase was found and the police were ripping apart the Huckaby home. THEN she realized (if she is guilty of this crime) that she needed a good story as to why Sandra's body ended up in her suitcase, so she came up the suitcase theft story. Huckaby also gave a number of stories with conflicting information in police interviews, which no doubt made them focus on Huckaby as Sandra's killer.

So this crime turns out allegedly not to have been committed by a male nor a sex crime (that we know of). The case is an anomaly, much like the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping in Utah in 2002. The Smart case created a monster: families of missing children now believe their children will be found alive because Elizabeth Smart was. Proof that a child can be found alive after such a long time has created a huge amount of false hope and expenditure. And after she was found, television got raked over the coals for believing she was dead. An anomoly like Elizabeth may be wonderful for that particular victim and family and an anomly like the Sandra Cantu case may be fascinating and eyeopening, but we shouldn't base our law enforcement and criminal justice decisions on the extremely rare cases rather than the overwhelming number of cases to the contrary. Television commentators, while they realize anomolies exist, cannot add a disclaimer on each and every statement they make on air (considering the fact they already have such a short window of time to speak). Even a profiler doing true criminal profiling of cases using specific individual case evidence (and not just general statistics), will encounter the occasional case where all the evidence points to a male and not a female, or to a husband instead of a stranger, or to one race and not the other. And because of these anomolies, we have a court system that requires us to prove through evidence that the suspect is absolutely guilty. Even then, sometimes the anomolies slip through.

If Huckaby is convicted, Sandra Cantu will be the poster child for children getting kidnapped and murdered by women. Even if she is only one out of a thousand cases, every time a child is abducted in the future, we are going to be reminded it could be a woman "just as much" as it could be a man. No, this is not true; in almost every case in the future where a child is abducted by a unrelated adult, it will be a male. Sorry, guys. Women may drown their own children in bathtubs, dump them into ponds to run off with their boyfriends, smother baby after baby following their births, kill their patients at the hospital, and steal little babies just because they want one, but abducting little girls is just not something that is a popular female crime.

Finally, I repeat, profiling doesn't happen on television. Experts are just speculating based on the limited information thrown out, and commenting in the minuscule amount of time allotted. Comments are "for entertainment only" and are meant to educate and inspire the individual to want to learn more. Television is a sound bite world, and one should expect to get sound bite quality of information.

So why do I do television if I cannot really profile there and sometimes have to end up feeling like an idiot (and getting emails calling me such)? Because television, in spite of its flaws, is a great way to reach out to citizens. It is a wonderful tool for encouraging discussion about crime, sex offenders, safety, parenting, and, even though it is a bit risky, a way to show how criminals operate and cases are analyzed.

The Tracy PD did a fabulous job with this investigation. They got their man (oops...woman). They likely thought it was a male sex offender themselves in the beginning, but they focused on the evidence and when it led them to a different theory and a female suspect, they didn't ignore the facts. They changed their theory when new evidence came to light. They should be commended for their fine work.

Meanwhile, enjoy television for what it is: news and entertainment with a bit of education thrown in. But do not, I repeat, do not think you are being provided with true investigative and profiling analysis. Also, when you see me do my next television interview on the Sandra Cantu case, you will see me try to answer why I didn't "profile" the case correctly, and why I didn't consider the killer could be a female. I will try to explain 30 seconds.


Shreela said...

Thanks for explaining this; I'll keep it in mind while listening to media reports in the future.

As far as any expert being accused of sexism or racism, it's my opinion as a layperson that if the experts are going by documented statistics (gathered and analyzed correctly), that a mistake is probably not due to sexism or racism, but probably due to the occasional anomaly, or probably not having enough clues yet.

This post causes me to wonder how many experts being interviewed on TV have had their disclaimers edited out because of "time considerations" (e.g. "at this time", or "based on current evidence")?

Pat Brown said...

Most television is live, but when interviews are taped. just a couple lines are taken from it and sometimes those lines are completely out of context.

Newspapers misquote like crazy and the Internet spawns more misquotes and, worse, misquotes of misquotes!

The best method for an expert to be sure people understand what he is saying is to write a book, an article, or a blog.

Jan said...

Is it harder to bring a conviction against a woman who murders a child because of these preconceptions?

FleaStiff said...

Damon Runyon Theory of Criminal Commentary: The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that's the way to bet.
Okay, I've not really followed the case and certainly not followed it to the level that some have, but I too felt "male pervert from the immediate area". Indeed I would have omited the word 'male' simply because it would have been superfluous.
One sociologist when asked Why Do Men Cheat replied Because They Can. Just as socio-economic trends of long ago gave husbands the ability to have a little piece on the side, changes in our socio-economic factors have allowed females to cheat more readily simply because the marketplace and transferability of job skills allows them to have extramarital activity without economic consequences.
I imagine its the same with crime. Females are now able and willing to comit crimes.
Would I have thought of a female perpetrator? No.
Was it spontaneous? I recall one little boy who was going door to door soliciting donations or something and ofcourse the killer was in the last home the cops could track the guy to. In the Cantu case it seems to be the same thing: an impromptu act which was not planned and not really executed well at all.
I'd have had an intensely local search, but I too would have focused on the males figuring that if a female were involved it would solely be in covering up the actions of her son or husband.

Pat Brown said...

Jan, women who kill children rarely get as harsh a sentence as men. Some get just a year in a psychiatric facility and then come back out and get pregnant again. If Russell Yates had drowned his five children in the bathtub, he would not be doing art projects and attending therapy meetings as Andrea is right now.

People have difficulty believe that women are coldblooded psychopaths who can kill just as brutally and premeditatedly as men.

It was NOT because I didn't think a woman could kidnap and brutally kill a child that I did not suspect a woman in the Cantu case. Although I have had men write me emails attacking me for being a feminist and being harsh on men (usually over domestic killings, a mostly male activity), they just aren't familiar with my work. I am one of the few females out here who consistantly states women can be dangerous psychopaths too and don't give women who off people a break because you fall for the belief that she is had emotional issues, postpartum depression, or was an abused spouse. Actualy, most of the time I get kudos from men who are amazed I AM this tough on my own sex. So in the Cantu case, the reason I didn't suspect a female was because all the evidence that I was aware of pointed to a male sex predator.

Suppose we had a kidnapping of a baby from a hospital? The video shows us a slightly heavyset woman in a skirt and blouse take the baby and go out the door. Who would we be looking for?A male or a female? Well, statistically, people who steal babies from hospitals are almost all female (and I can't remember one that wasn't). And we see someone in a skirt and dress. So we put out a BOLO for a woman who stole a baby. Eventually, we find it was a man who put a disguise on to go steal the baby. Well, wouldn't we all be surprised!!! Sure, but are we idiots because we suspected a woman or sexist? No. It would be a major anomoly. Now, if it started happening over and over again, we might change our thinking. I am a little more cautious now about women who end up stabbed and strangled because I have seen a rise in women attacking their husband's or boyfriend's new lovers. Ends up looking like HE did it or some sex predator but turns out to be a jealous ex.

As to what you said, Fleastiff about societal penalties for adultery and economics, so very true. Humans often weight out the penalties of actions before they make their choices. Economics is a very important part of that and as society changes so do the choices of each sex.

We are seeing more violent women these days. Female gangs have popped up and there are more women likely to resort to violence with each other (especially those teen girls). Biology still keeps women's use of violence at a dull roar partially because it is not the way we get power and partly because we are not physically as likely to win unless we are fighting other women or children (which is why those are usually our targets if we kill and aren't helping a guy commit crimes). But, we do see more physical violence by women where culture supports such behavior. I leave you with a joke from my own county which cracked me up!:

The first man married a woman from Pennsylvania . He told her that she was to do the dishes and house cleaning. It took a couple of days, but on the third day, he came home to see a clean house and dishes washed and put away.

The second man married a woman from North Carolina . He gave his wife orders that she was to do all the cleaning, dishes and the cooking. The first day he didn't see any results, but the next day he saw it was better. By the third day, he saw his house was clean, the dishes were done and there was a huge dinner on the table.

The third man married a girl from PG County . He ordered her to keep the house cleaned, dishes washed, lawn mowed, laundry washed, and hot meals on the table for every meal. He said the first day he didn't see anything, the second day he didn't see anything, but by the third day, some of the swelling had gone down and he could see a little out of his left eye, and his arm was healed enough that he could fix himself a sandwich and load the dishwasher.

FleaStiff said...

I wonder.
Perhaps someday we may learn more of this crime although I'm sure the defense lawyers will find experts who are very creative.
I can't see this crime committed in the church as being premeditated. I think the corpse disposal was absurdly foolhardy. Some feel her Sunday School Teacher persona was a mantle she was required to don due to living in her grand father's home while her grand father was a pastor. So perhaps her personality was totally unrelated to what would be assumed by her activities on the usual Sunday mornings.
I just wonder what trigger might be involved for such a foolishly executed crime of impulse. I also wonder if she ever thought to leave her victim alive but to take flight. Would her impulsive flight have been futile? Undoubtedly, but no more futile than her disposal of the corpse in a foolish manner certain to lead to discovery of the corpse and of her involvement.
Why the murder? Did she really think it would buy her some time?
I've often felt that our Draconian punishments might somehow be jeopardizing the lives of the rape victims, but I wonder if the rapists really take a moment for reflection before the killing or not. I like to think that some man who has just performed monstrous acts with a young female atleast would have the courage to leave her alive and take his chances running from the law rather than killing his victim. Perhaps it never even enters their demented minds?

FleaStiff said...

I'm aware of an organization known as Parents Anonymous. It is a 12 step program for physical abuse. Often the parents who feel overwhelmed will leave their kids with a fellow member. Yet there are no worries because the people who beat their kids have issues about blaming their ruined lives on their kids. They don't want to hit other kids. Just their own noisy brats.

Yet, here we have someone who killed. Probably to cover up the molestation. Possibly for enjoyment. We may never know.

LadySheila said...

Wonderfully articulated. Love your posts Pat Brown!

Pat Brown said...


Our laws aren't Draconian enough! We ought to have life for violent rape which would keep these offenders from coming out and committing the crime again.

Some rapists just don't like killing so they won't. Some start by raping and leaving the victim alive and move on to killing them. Others leave them alive on purpose so as to enjoy fantasizing about the how the woman will relive the rape over and over in her mind. We need these guys off the street forever.

Thanks, LadySheila, for your kind words. You can see already how the discovery that this WAS a sexual homicide changes the profile again! The fact the girl would have been redressed actually points more to a female rather than male offender. If a males sex offender had raped and killed the girl, he probably wouldn't have put her clothes back on. But women tend to dress dolls. Like Casey Anthony bothering with putting a little heart on Caylee's taped mouth...women like to make themselves feel less "bad" by prettying things up. Sure, I killed her, but I made sure she looked nice, gave her a good funeral (privately). Some men have redressed victims but they tend to do this when they are going to display them (usually they ARE naked but occasionally they act out some other fantasy with the style of dressing).

We also just found out Melissa had accused her ex-husband on child abduction during her divorce proceedings. So, she obviously was thinking about it even some four years ago (and we best check to see who else has gone missing). Sadly, the judge gave Melissa custody. Guess they didn't see the psychopathic behavior in her accusations!