Criminal Minds

Seeing the world through the eyes of a behavioral profiler.

Five Reasons People Get Away with Murder

The Dangerous Instincts Perspective

When law enforcement seemingly takes weeks, months and years to track down, catch and prosecute an offender, people are left with many questions. They have the same questions when a high-profile defendant is acquitted or when a dangerous person is released early from prison and then goes on to commit another violent crime.

How do dangerous people avoid detection? Why does it take so long to catch them? And how do they manage to convince a jury of their innocence or a parole board of their rehabilitation?

I spent my career studying the criminal mind—especially the minds of psychopaths, people who lack a conscience. People—especially psychopaths—get away with their crimes for the following reasons:

1. They know how to blend in. They look normal and appear normal. Dangerous people do not look any different than non-dangerous people. They can be married, live in houses, and have pets and children.

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2. They excel at impression management. They know what to say and do to convince others around them that they are not a threat. They disarm people with their charm.

3. They tend to land on their feet. They are cool under crisis. Even if they commit murder by accident, they are not the types of people who will seem agitated or sad. Rather, they think strategically, realizing that they must come up with a story quickly in order to divert attention away from themselves. They mislead police, stage crime scenes and destroy evidence. They don't want to get caught and will stop at nothing to avoid getting caught.

4. Evidence isn't as abundant as people think. Despite what gets portrayed on television, most crime scenes are not covered in fingerprints, DNA, and blood. Sometimes we don't even have a body. Forensic evidence is very fragile and it doesn't last forever. It can be destroyed by the weather, the environment, the perpetrator and even wild animals.

5. Witnesses are often reluctant to come forward. Many people who could help with an investigation often don't. They sometimes don't help because they don't realize what they know is valuable. Other times they don't help because they fear what might happen if they do. Or they might simply be loyal to the perpetrator.


Mary Ellen O'Toole, PhD, is the author of Dangerous Instincts.

These are the opinions and views of Mary Ellen O'Toole and do not reflect the views of the FBI.

Mary Ellen O'Toole, Ph.D. was one of the FBI's senior profilers at the Behavioral Analysis Unit and is the author of Dangerous Instincts: How Gut Feelings Betray Us. 

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