As the twig is bent, so grows the tree.
My dad used that expression often, and a major new study of 37 men who were executed in Texas in 1997 suggests that he was probably right on target.
Long before they reached death row, those 37 men — some of whom committed crimes so violent that they are almost unthinkable — had themselves been victims of violence as young children. And those who suffered multiple forms of child abuse during their early years committed the most heinous crimes.
The study, published in the current issue of the journal Violence and Victims, stops short of proclaiming a direct link between child abuse and subsequent criminal activity, but the data clearly waves a red flag.
Most children who are victims of violence do not turn to lives of crime, says lead author Dorothy Van Soest, now dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Washington. But her research, conducted while she was at the University of Texas, offers compelling evidence that multiple types of child abuse, at certain ages, may well turn the victim into an abuser later in life.
The convicts included 22 white, 13 black and two Latino men, all convicted of murder. The researchers divided them into two categories, those who committed the "most heinous" crimes, characterized by extreme violence and a lack of remorse, and those who committed "less heinous" murders, usually during a robbery or while strung out on drugs.
Sixteen of the crimes committed by whites were evaluated as heinous, and six as less heinous; six of the blacks committed heinous murders, and seven less; the two Latinos were split between the categories.
The data was a bit slim in some cases, Van Soest says, but it revealed that a total of 20 men had been victims of childhood abuse, 15 of whom later committed heinous murders.
But here's one finding that leaps out of the report: Those who suffered sexual and physical abuse, as well as physical or emotional neglect, committed the most ruthless murders. One stabbed his victim 50 times, another shot, stabbed and strangled his victim, and a third stuffed the body of his victim in the trunk of his car and then went to a party.
Van Soest says that "lethal combination" of multiple types of abuse is not well understood, and much more research is needed. It suggests, however, that timing and a "constellation of factors," as she puts it, may set a child on a deadly course.
She emphasizes that her report is not intended to excuse or explain away the violence that characterized the lives of these men. But she believes that if some of these murderers had received the right attention early on, the result might have been quite different. That may not be easy to accept, given the nature of some of these crimes.
The researchers were concerned about the privacy the convicts' families, so they gave them all false names. Van Soest offers this profile of a man identified only as "Greg."
Greg was born into a low income family to a father who was an abuser, and a mother who loved him but was so abused herself that she was helpless to protect him, Van Soest says. By the time he was six he had been blinded in one eye when his brother stuck a wire in it, and his father abused and "tortured" him, as she puts it, on a daily basis. He was struck on the head so often that he sustained some brain damage.
When he was 7, his brother died of leukemia. By the time he was 9, he had started using alcohol and drugs. He ran away from home at 11 and was picked up by a man who raped him and kept him for several days. He eventually escaped, with the help of his grandfather, who began to sexually abuse him. That continued for several years.
He first came to the attention of authorities when he was 15, when he was arrested for burglary. By the time he was 19 he had fathered a daughter, and he married and divorced her mother twice. He was repeatedly jailed for public intoxication.
His mother died when he turned 24, and that turned out to be a really bad year. He was convicted that year, at the young age of 24, of murder and sexual mutilation.
"He later confessed to three prior sexual mutilation killings," Van Soest says.
"When you look back at a story like that it's almost completely predictable as to what's going to happen," she adds. "Even the nature of the crimes had some direct connections to what happened to him in childhood."
But the critical question remains. Could that story have had a different ending if someone had come to Greg's aid while he was still a child? Or was he on an irreversible course?
"I don't believe so," Van Soest says. Greg tried for two years to get through the ninth grade, she adds. He went to school regularly, worked hard, and got fair grades, but troubles at home just overwhelmed him.
"There was a determined kid in there," she says. "If somebody had noticed, and if somebody had intervened, I believe he was salvageable," she says.
Nobody really knows for sure, of course. Maybe some questions have no answers.
But this study suggests my dad was right. We need to pay a lot more attention to those twigs.
Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.