Your Questions Answered About Black Widow Case

Why did she do it? Forensic psychiatrist Dr. James Knoll on Stacey Castor.

ByABC News
October 9, 2008, 12:29 PM

April 27, 2009 -- Stacey Castor was convicted of murdering her husband by poisoning him with antifreeze and of attempting to murder her own daughter and frame her for the crime. Castor is also suspected of poisoning her first husband with antifreeze.

Dr. James Knoll, a forensic psychiatrist, offered a psychological perspective on the case, and answered viewers' questions about how someone could commit these kinds of crimes.

Knoll is the director of forensic psychiatry and associate professor of psychiatry at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, N.Y. He has worked as a forensic evaluator for state and federal courts, corrections and the private sector. Click here to visit Knoll's blog.

SARA: Does Stacey Castor's behavior and body language on the stand show any sort of clue about her mental state and guilt?

KNOLL: I think it is only natural to want to look for signs like this, especially when the defendant may have done something very cruel or terrible. However, body language is not a science that one can rely on with scientific certainty. Further, one must remember that there is much going on during a trial that can affect a defendant's behavior and body language. Examples include side effects of medications, anxiety, fatigue and attorney instructions to the defendant on how to behave, to name just a few.

But your question raises a salient emotional issue: Our own anxiety about being able to recognize or "spot" a murderer. The reality is that the face, behavior and body language of a murderer are very often rather ordinary and provide no prospective cues for recognition. From Eichmann to a long list of serial killers, the phrase "terrifyingly normal" is sometimes used. The absence of a "look" or a mark of Cain is highly disturbing to most. A journalist covering the Jeffrey Dahmer trial "could not get over" how ordinary Dahmer appeared, remarking that "there was nothing to him." [i] Schwartz A: The man who could not kill enough. Birch Lane, N. Y., 1993.

CHRIS, Rochester, N.Y.: I noticed during Stacey Castor's testimony a peculiar thing. When asked by the prosecutor whether or not she killed either of her husbands, she replied no and absolutely not. Oddly though, she was shaking her head up and down as if subconsciously saying yes. Is this a nonverbal communication that is valid or just coincidence?

KNOLL: It is tempting to want to read subtleties into details such as this, and you are obviously a very perceptive person. However, as mentioned previously, this really amounts to speculation, with no real reputable science to back it up. For example, it is equally possible that she was nodding her head affirmatively simply to put emphasis behind her answers.

LAURA, Dunfermline, Ill.: I'm wondering if Stacey is a psychopath and what determines if a psychopath kills or just makes other people's lives miserable who are subject to them?

KNOLL: Being a psychopath may make someone more likely to murder than a nonpsychopath, but to the best of our current and limited knowledge, what leads people to commit acts of intentional harm involves a complex interaction of biological, psychological and social factors acting in concert with situational variables. One set of factors affects and is affected by the others, and likely cannot stand on its own. In any individual case, the forensic psychiatrist must objectively weave them together in an accurate, coherent narrative.

Psychopathy is a term that refers to a clinical construct describing a more aggressive and highly narcissistic form of antisocial personality. Robert Hare has attempted to approach the clinical construct by developing a research tool called the Psychopathy Checklist. The checklist measures psychopathy via research established criteria. Criteria include personality characteristics, such as glibness, superficial charm, manipulative behavior and other antisocial behaviors. To make a diagnosis of psychopathy, one must obtain the defendant's "score" on the checklist. Doing this is a time-consuming effort that requires sufficient training, record review and hours of evaluation. The subject of psychopathy has received intense and productive study. However, our understanding of psychopathy remains somewhat rudimentary, and there continues to be some disagreement among experts in the field over the concept and its implications. The lack of clarity on this issue has not been helped by the fact that there is still considerable debate surrounding the nature and etiology of psychopathy. While some researchers view psychopathy as a discrete category or taxon, others make a convincing argument that psychopathy is best understood as existing on a continuum.

Also, while most research on psychopathy has focused on forensic and correctional populations, very little is understood about psychopaths who are functional in society or those who have superior intelligence. Some research has begun to focus on putative differences between the "unsuccessful" (caught) and "successful" (not caught) psychopath.

KIM: What makes the mind of a killer believable to himself?

KNOLL: It's important to remember that there is no one type of "killer" -- in other words, all people who have committed murder are not alike. Different killers may have different motives and beliefs about what they are doing, as well as different situational factors at the time of the murder.

Once the individual enters the criminal justice system and begins a trial, all manner of variables may come into play causing a murderer to appear confident and insistent upon his innocence. But certainly, self-preservation and self-serving concerns are often a driving force.

NICK, Murfreesboro, Tenn.: What is your take on the fact that this woman buried both her husbands next to each other like trophies. Just seeing that was enough to convince me she did it. She even has matching tattoos highlighting their deaths, again another trophy-like action.

KNOLL: My main reaction was simply to think how terribly tragic the entire situation is, and that their extended family will now be left to somehow support each other and recover from a horrendous ordeal that should never have happened.

That said, note that the term "trophy" is most often used with male serial killers, whose primary motive is sadistic sexual gratification. They use their collected trophies to relive and remember their crimes, often for the purpose of obtaining sexual gratification via masturbation. In the case of female serial killers, what we know is more limited; however, their motive appears to be quite different.

In a review of published literature on female serial murder, the most common motive identified was material gain. [i] Sexual or sadistic motives are believed to be extremely rare in female serial murderers. Psychopathic traits and histories of childhood abuse have been consistently reported in these women. In a study of 105 female serial killers, the preferred method of killing was poisoning. [ii] An analysis of 86 female serial killers from the U.S. found that the victims tended to be spouses, children or the elderly. [iii] Sometimes referred to as "black widow" killers, these women tend to be geographically stable and live in the same area where their offenses occurred.

But you bring up an interesting point -- could a female black widow type serial killer keep "trophies" or some type of memento as a method of reliving the power and control she had over her victims -- literally holding their lives in her hands? I have not yet heard of such a case, but this is an interesting hypothesis.

[i] Frei A., Vollm B., Graf M., Volker D. Female serial killing: Review and case report. Criminal Behavior and Mental Health 2006 16: 167-176.

[ii] Wilson W., Hilton T. Modus operandi of female serial killers. Psychological Reports 1998 82: 495-498.

[iii] Kelleher M. Kelleher C. Murder Most Rare: The Female Serial Killer. Praeger: Westport, CT, 1998.

RITA, Melbourne, Fla.: Were mother and daughter evaluated by a psychiatrist? It was never mentioned in the show. Was Stacey tested for multiple personalities? I ask because Stacey's mother and friends seem unflappable in their support. However, her flat affect was incredible, especially when the prosecutor was yelling. Was she on drugs during the trial?KNOLL: To my knowledge, neither mother nor daughter were psychiatrically evaluated. For Castor to have been psychiatrically evaluated for the purposes of the trial, she would have had to open this door herself by raising some type of mental health defense, which she did not. She simply maintained her innocence.

I do not know whether Castor was on medications during the trial, as this information would have been confidential, unless she had raised a mental health defense. I too was struck by her lack of emotional expression. Please see one of my previous answers re: this issue and what factors can potentially cause a defendant to appear emotionless besides simple lack of remorse.

COLLEEN, Rochester, N.Y.: I don't understand the difference between psychopathy and mental illness. Aren't all serial killers mentally ill?

KNOLL: Most data on psychiatric diagnoses of serial murderers comes from individual case studies and retrospective analyses. The majority of these studies have suggested a common constellation of diagnoses: psychopathy, antisocial personality, sexual sadism and other paraphilias (sexual deviancies). More recent and well designed comparison studies have yielded similar findings. For example, a study comparing sexual murderers to other general sex offenders found that the sexual murderers had greater levels of psychopathy, sadism, fetishism, and transvestism. [i] There have been a few case reports of of serial killers who have been psychotic (lost touch with reality, have delusions, etc.), but these are rare.

As noted in my answer to another question, psychopathy is a term that refers to a clinical construct describing a more aggressive and highly narcissistic form of antisocial personality. Thus, only a fraction of all persons with antisocial personality disorder will be considered a psychopath.

Regarding all serial killers being mentally ill, this depends on what definition of mental illness you use. In the eyes of the law, psychopathy and antisocial personality disorder typically do not qualify as a mental illness for the purpose a mental health defense, such as the insanity defense. This is because, to the best of our current understanding, these "disorders" do not rob the individual of their connection with reality. On the other hand, if we step away from the law and courts for a moment, can we say that persons with psychopathy have some type of "illness"? This is the subject of intense debate. Some believe that there is nothing "wrong" with them in the manner of a deficit or impairment that therapy can "fix." Instead, they exhibit an evolutionarily viable life strategy that involves lying, cheating and manipulating others. Another camp believes that psychopaths do have "hard-wired" brain abnormalities, and that we may, in the future, find that these abnormalities cause them to process emotions and think differently from non-psychopaths. But then the question remains: Can you call it an "illness" in the traditional medical sense? At the present time, most mental health professionals are very hesitant to view it as an illness in this sense.

[i] Langevin R. A Study of the Psychosexual Characteristics of Sex Killers: Can We Identify Them Before It Is Too Late? Int Journal Offender Therapy and Comp Criminology 2003 47(4): 366-382.

DERIL, Salt Lake City, Utah: Recently on TV I watched a report onresearch that suggested that a certain part of the brain, having to do with conscience, is smaller in psychopaths. Could this be the problem?

KNOLL: Yes, the show you saw was probably referring to a brain structure known as the amygdala, which we believe is responsible for processing emotions. In addition, other brain studies have suggested that psychopaths may have other brain abnormalities as well.

For example, some of the more commonly cited deficits found in psychopaths include abnormal language processing, amygdala dysfunction and impaired emotional responses. The common clinical observations of attenuated emotional and fear response in psychopaths have undergone preliminary investigation by functional magnetic resonance imaging (brain scanning). Whereas healthy controls showed enhanced activation of the emotion processing circuit in response to fear and emotion arousing stimuli, psychopaths displayed no significant activity in this circuit. These findings have led researchers to conclude that emotional and cognitive processing of aversive stimuli may occur via different neural routes in psychopaths. To extend the speculation, psychopaths may process fear and emotions in a "cerebral" (cool, calculating), as opposed to a limbic (emotional) manner. It is also important to note that the lifestyle of some psychopathic persons may involve either substance misuse and/or head trauma, both of which may further influence any underlying neurobiological impairments.

DERIL, Salt Lake City, Utah: Can one be a psychopath without beinga killer?

KNOLL: Yes, this is entirely possible. Being a psychopath does not automatically make one a killer.

TAMBRA, Dallas: How do you recognize a person as being a psychopath? How do you know if you are acquainted with one in either your professional or personal life?

KNOLL: Please see my previous response to a similar question re: psychopathy.There is an excellent book you might be interested in that would give you an in-depth answer to your other question:"Without Conscience" by Robert Hare.

JIM, Lawrenceville, Ga: Doctor, personally, do you believe evil exists? If not, do you believe this is just a case of extreme human behavior? What percentage of the population is capable of such deeds?

KNOLL: Excellent question. For forensic purposes, it is my opinion that forensic psychiatrists have nothing to say about evil because it is a moral judgment subject to bias and not a scientific principle. I actually wrote a paper on this very subject (CLICK HERE to view) and here is the proper reference: Knoll J: The Recurrence of an Illusion: The Concept of "Evil" in Forensic Psychiatry. Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 2008; 36(1): 105-116.

Since you asked my "personal" opinion, I will try to be austere and not wax too philosophical. I would only say that, in my personal experience, most of what people want to label "evil" is really extreme selfishness. For example -- in the case of a male sexually sadistic serial killer -- the experience of enhancing his orgasm is more important than his victim's life. What could be more selfish?

PAMELA, Henderson, N.Y.: Just watched the two-hour program, and my question is this: Wouldn't the "suicide letter" have shown exactly who it was who wrote it, the mother or daughter, through the phraseology and choice of words used, spelling errors, etc.? Not much discussion was given to this on the program.

KNOLL: Now you've hit on exactly what I wanted to get across. My role in this case was to do exactly what you have suggested: Use my forensic training, experience and forensic psycholinguistic expertise to analyze the alleged suicide letter. I did not testify in the case but gave my findings to the district attorney for him to use as he saw fit, which he did. This may not have come across much in the program.

I was able to carefully analyze the alleged suicide note, as well as compare it to samples of both Stacey's and Ashley's writing. In short, it was my opinion, based on my experience of reviewing over 200 genuine suicide notes, that the alleged suicide note was not written by Ashley, and that more likely than not, it was written by Stacey. While I cannot at this time outline all the reasons for my conclusions, here were a few:

EILEEN, Orange, Mass.: What types of childhood traumas, if any, may have been suffered by Stacey that would contribute to developing this extreme selfishness and lack of caring?

KNOLL: I did not have access to Ms. Castor's historical data, nor did I evaluate her. I can tell you that, in terms of female serial killers, psychopathic traits and histories of childhood abuse have been consistently reported.

Perhaps one of the more high-profile female serial killers in the U.S. was Aileen Wuornos, who was rather rare in that she was not a black widow type but was convicted of killing seven men in separate incidents. Wuornos had claimed that all of the men had raped her (or attempted to) while she was working as a prostitute. Thus, she did not fit the typical profile of a female serial killer. Her case received remarkable media and Hollywood attention. In a detailed case study analysis, it was theorized that Wuornos was biologically predisposed to psychopathy, and her abusive childhood resulted in serious deficiencies in being able to form healthy/normal attachments in terms of relationships. [i] Finally, her aggressive narcissism and antisocial lifestyle predisposed her to situations in which she was able to commit acts of predatory murder. Wuornos was executed by lethal injection in 2002 in Florida.

[i] Arrigo B., Griffin A. Serial Murder and the Case of Aileen Wuornos: Attachment Theory, Psychopathy, and Predatory Aggression. Behavioral Sci and Law 2004 22: 375-393.

ANN, New York, N.Y.: I just read your blog. I'm not a psychiatrist, but it seems as though Stacey would have some other type of mental illness besides depression or schizophrenia. In general, depressed people don't seem to want to hurt/kill other people. The only ones who people with depression might want to kill would be themselves. Moreover, depression does not seem like a severe enough mental illness to motivate her to kill her two husbands and attempt to kill her own daughter. Stacey also seems to be too lucid and coherent to be schizophrenic. From the report, she showed no signs of any type of emotion. I thought that schizophrenics go from being able to function with the rest of society to having full-blown breakdowns in which they hear voices and are in a different reality. That didn't seem to be the case with Stacey. In fact, I was struck with how emotionless she was. Even on the off chance that she didn't kill the two husbands or try to kill her daughter, would you not at some point show some kind of emotion, being upset at the thought that it was her daughter who killed the two husbands? Wouldn't she also be upset that her daughter could have done something like that, and that she raised a child who was capable of murder? Is it possible that Stacey is instead a sociopath? From what I understand, sociopaths have that kind of cool, calm demeanor.KNOLL: Thanks for reading my blog! I agree with your observations. I too did not see any evidence, as an outside observer, of serious mental illness such as schizophrenia or depression with Ms. Castor. However, please keep in mind that I did not have a chance to evaluate her, and therefore I cannot make any diagnoses of her.I too would wonder about psychopathic traits in terms of your observations of Ms. Castor's apparent lack of emotion. Since you used the term sociopath, this gives me an opportunity briefly note the historical evolution of the concept of psychopathy.

The pioneering psychiatrist Philippe Pinel introduced the concept of the psychopathic personality at the turn of the 19th century. He described general characteristics of these individuals, such as impulsive violence, that occurred in the absence of any appreciable deficits in intellect or cognition. In 1941, psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley published his classic text, "The Mask of Sanity," which provided rich clinical descriptions and detailed case studies of psychopathic individuals. At the present time, and particularly among forensic mental health staff, the term "psychopath" may be thrown about loose and fast. However, it should be understood that this term now denotes a very specific clinical concept as researched and defined by Robert Hare. Older literature sometimes uses the term sociopath. It would be technically incorrect to use the terms psychopathy and sociopathy as synonyms. The term sociopathy has fallen out of favor, and was used primarily to stress the sociological factors influencing an individual's antisocial behaviors.

JANIE MARIE, New Bern, N.C.: Concerning a "black widow" persona, what causes her to do her deeds? Does she look for any little excuse to begin a plot to kill? What kind of person does she look for to befriend and what may their personality be like?

KNOLL: The most common motive identified for such "black widow" killers was material gain. [i] Others have pointed to a driving need for control and/or domination in the form of having the power to take someone's life -- not too dissimilar from medical professionals who murder patients -- the so-called "angels of mercy" killers.

Interestingly, the notorious case of "Sister" Amy Archer-Gilligan (1873-1962) contains features of both. "Sister Amy" was a nursing-home proprietor in Connecticut, who systematically murdered at least five people and at least one husband by poison. Her husband's will had been drawn up not long before his death, which left her his entire estate. The rest of her victims were residents of her nursing home.

Each individual killer will have her own proclivities, needs and triggers, so this data can only be obtained from the killer herself. In a study of 105 female serial killers, the preferred method of killing was poisoning. [ii] An analysis of 86 female serial killers from the U.S. found that the victims tended to be spouses, children or the elderly. [iii] Sometimes referred to as "black widow" killers, these women tend to be geographically stable and live in the same area where their offenses occurred. Their victims are not strangers, and the methods they use are covert or "low profile."21 On rare occasions, women may be involved with a male serial killer as a part of a serial killing "team." [iv] [i] Frei A., Vollm B., Graf M., Volker D. Female serial killing: Review and case report. Criminal Behaviour and Mental Health 2006 16: 167-176. [ii] Wilson W., Hilton T. Modus operandi of female serial killers. Psychological Reports 1998 82: 495-498. [iii] Kelleher M. Kelleher C. Murder Most Rare: The Female Serial Killer. Praeger: Westport, CT, 1998. [iv] Holmes R., Holmes S. Serial Murder, 2nd Ed. Wadsworth: Belmond, CA, 1998.

MISTY, Crawford, Texas: I am currently studying psychology. I have never understood how someone could do things so horrific and not be mentally ill. There has to be an illness that would cause people to do such things. I do not believe normal healthy beings could possibly behave in this way. Especially with this case -- she did not even show emotion once she knew she was caught.

KNOLL: Thanks for your question, Misty. You made me remember when I was a medical student, watching the grisly details of the Jeffrey Dahmer case unfold. I thought the same thing to myself: Come on -- body parts in his house, eating human biceps? How can this guy not be seriously mentally ill?!

Later, I would do my forensic specialty training with a forensic psychiatrist who actually worked on the Dahmer case. I came to learn that it is always a dangerous thing to conclude serious mental illness based solely on the nature of the crime. In other words, one should be very careful about assuming someone must have been very mentally ill because they committed a crime that was horrific or bizarre, etc. This is because of the fact that relatively "normal" people can and do commit such acts - as unnerving as this may seem.

That said, please also see my previous response to a question about the nature of "mental illness," and who is doing the defining of it. Recall the the law usually only regards "serious" mental diseases or defects as qualifying for potential mental health defenses. Why? Because lesser entities that we may lable "disorders" are not regarded as significantly impairing a persons judgment or perception of reality. I do agree with you that "healthy" persons do behave this way, but "health" is a continuum, and while a person may not have what we would consider healthy family relationships and ways of living, they still may be healthy enough to function in society, make choices and exercise judgment that is not significantly impaired.

Incidentally, back to Dahmer for a moment: some excellent forensic psychiatrists have been re-examing his case and wondering about whether he may have suffered from a particular kind of neurodevelopmental deficit. [i], [ii] These investigators have described an association between autism spectrum disorders and a subgroup of serial murders, and propose that Dahmer may have suffered from an illness known as Asperger's disorder. Along these lines, it is interesting to note that after exhaustive interviews with Dahmer, legendary FBI profiler Robert Ressler (coined the term serial killer) was impressed by the "peculiar" nature of Dahmer's presentation. [iii] Of course, such a disorder would be unlikely to rise to the level required by the law to serve as a mental health defense, but from a purely scientific standpoint, this seems fascinating.

[i] Silva J, Ferrari M, Leong G. The case of Jeffrey Dahmer: Sexual homicide from a neuropsychiatric developmental perspective. J Forensic Sci 2002 47(6):1347-59. [ii] Silva J., Leong G., Ferrari M. A neuropsychiatric developmental model of serial homicidal behavior. Behav Sci Law 2004 22(6):787-99. [iii] Ressler R. How To Interview A Cannibal. In: Profilers: Leading Investigators Take You Inside the Criminal Mind (J. Campbell and D. Denevi, Eds.) Prometheus Books: Amherst, New York, 2004.

SHIRLEY, San Antonio, Texas: Dr. Knoll, is Stacey Castor a schizoid personality with no conscience or what would be the diagnosis for someone to commit such horrible crimes and then try to pin it on her daughter?

My congratulations to the fantastic prosecutor who relentlessly sought justice for her two dead husbands and her beautiful daughter.

KNOLL: For the purposes of answering your question, let us assume that, unequivocally, what you say is true: that the jury found correctly that she murdered her husband (and perhaps another husband), then tried to frame her daughter for these crimes, and then tried to stage her daughter's murder to appear as a suicide.

Recalling my previous answer to another question re: psychopathy, let us also assume that Ms. Castor had strong psychopathic traits (in reality, I cannot really say this with certainty because: 1) I was not allowed to evaluate her, and 2) to my knowledge, she has never been "scored" via the psychopathy checklist). If all these assumptions were true, then the answer to your question of why is rather straightforward, though unnerving: In the mind of Stacey Castor, her continued freedom and, most importantly, her desire to evade detection and avoid conviction were more important to her than her own daughter's life. In other words, she was simply willing to kill her daughter to avoid responsibility for her crimes.

Now, still assuming all this is true for the purposes of discussion, what does this require in the mind of Ms. Castor? It requires, at the very least, the psychopathic traits of lack of remorse or sense of guilt, ability to be deceitful and lie with ease, the possession of a callous lack of empathy, irresponsibility and a failure to accept responsibility for one's own actions, and perhaps a very shallow experience of emotional connectedness to significant others in relationships.

Classically, psychopaths tend to view others not as human beings with all the respect for the individual that this entails but rather as "objects" to be used for their own gain, and when need be, tossed away like a used kleenex.Regarding your mention of schizoid, I doubt this would fit. One of the primary traits of the schizoid personality is a life-long pattern of detachment from forming social relationships, and the desire to spend most of his/her time in solitary activities. In other words, someone who just has little to no interest in forming social relationships -- a kind of odd, lone wolf type of person.

Finally, I would support you in your praise of the legal professionals in this case. The attorneys on both sides of this case did a tremendous job. While our justice system is not without its flaws, rest assured that there are dedicated legal professionals, such as District Attorney Fitzpatrick, who work their backsides off and dedicate their lives to the singular cause of pursing justice.

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