I received a letter this week from a man who hoped to establish a pen-pal relationship with a female juvenile in detention. He asked for advice on just what he should say to a girl who had perpetrated a cold-blooded murder and had shown no remorse. This man’s reported intent is to restore the girl’s ability to be a functioning citizen when she gets out. So, what should he say?
Although I wonder if his stated motive is his true motive, his letter got me thinking. I even put the question to the students in my class on extreme antisocial behavior. It’s commonly believed that violent girls are more “salvageable” than boys, but some cases challenge this notion. Several teenage girls have shown a chilling disregard for others that puts them at risk for becoming adult psychopaths.
As I’ve studied adolescent female killers, I’ve seen a softer attitude toward them in the clinical and legal arenas, no matter how vile their acts. It’s as if we believe there is something inherent in females (“sugar and spice and everything nice”) that makes even coldest killers not really as bad as they seem. But consider these incidents:
* Brenda Spencer, 16, was bored. On January 29, 1979, she took her Christmas present, a .22 caliber semi-automatic rifle, adjusted the telescopic sight, and aimed at children on the playground at Cleveland Elementary School in San Diego. For twenty minutes, she had moved from window to window in her apartment, seeking the best vantage point. After shooting forty rounds, Spencer killed two men who’d attempted to shield the kids. She also wounded a police officer and nine children.
* In Clearfield, PA, a gang of kids planned to run away to Florida. When Jessica Holtmeyer, 16, thought that Kimberly Jo Dotts, a learning-disabled girl, might snitch on them, she put a noose around her neck and hanged her from a tree. After Dotts was let down, she gasped for breath, indicating she was still alive. Holtmeyer then used a basketball-size rock to smash the girl’s face. Holtmeyer later admitted she had wanted to cut the victim in pieces, scatter the body parts in the woods, and keep a finger as a souvenir.
*The trial for the 2003 murder of Jason Sweeney in Philadelphia ended with convictions. Three boys had swung the hammer, hatchet and rock that delivered the fatal blows, but 15-year-old Justina Morley had acted as the bait. Knowing what awaited Sweeney, she had invited him into the woods with the promise of intimacy so the others could kill him for his recent paycheck. She then stood over the body with the boys in a group hug. The victim’s dying words were to her, “You set me up.” She was allowed to plead to third-degree murder in exchange for her testimony against the boys. In court, Morley acted like she was sorry, but her post-crime correspondence to her cohorts revealed another attitude: “I’m a cold-hearted, death-worshipping bitch who survives by feeding off the weak and lonely. I lure them and then I crush them.” Morley also admitted to her tendency to manipulate “gullible humans.”
So, what can one say to a teenage girl who either wielded a weapon or masterminded a slaughter? So far, we have solid data on treatments only for boys at risk for adult psychopathy. However, this request for advice came not from a clinician but from an individual with no therapeutic experience. He just wants to “do something” that could make a difference. But can he?
We’ve learned from the research on violent male adolescents that productive intervention must be intensive, with a follow-up that lasts for several years. An act of kindness here and there has, at best, a transient influence on a child already hardened, greedy, enraged, or feeling entitled. That being said, kindness at the right time in the right place has influenced a few offenders to revisit their attitudes. Even a result with the odds stacked against it, if it’s positive, is reason enough for trying.
Perhaps the best advice for this pen-pal is to show through example the benefits of a pro-social life but to harbor no expectations. He might then gain the good feeling he seeks without pressuring his “new friend.” He might also plant a small seed that could one day make a difference.