March 5, 2007 -- Dr. Michael Welner is a forensic psychiatrist who has consulted to prosecutors, judges, and defense attorneys on hundreds of homicides around the United States, many of which involved domestic issues.
He is a special consultant to ABC News on cases of forensic interest, and has been following the investigation of Tara Grant's disappearance.
Dr. Welner, are there any causes that contribute more particularly to cases where husbands kill wives?
Several issues are particularly linked to husbands' decisions to kill their wives. Financial hardship and a humiliating prospect of ruin may often be the driving force behind such cases. Such killings, unlike the Grant killing, often target the children as well, and include a suicidal father. The despondent father feels he would not wish for his children to see him as a loser, and in suicide, for his family to grow up unsupported.
Sometimes, a husband may be maintaining a secret life that proves to be incompatible with marriage. For some husbands, it is secret homosexuality. For others, it is philandering. Such husbands kill their wives to gain their freedom without accounting for the consequences of divorce. Homicide is not then an outgrowth of his double life, it arises from the extreme conflict when the secret is revealed and the killer's choice not to abide the family, financial and legal consequences.
In other cases, a husband's morbid jealousy culminates in murder. Such tragedies bear out a history of previous accusations, infidelities real and imagined, and domestic violence. Morbid jealousy homicides distinguish themselves from double-life homicides and many financial homicides in that the homicide does follow a sequence of clear conflict and evidence for the lethality of the jealousy beforehand.
If the jealousy includes a father questioning the parentage of one of his children, a history of mistreatment of the child in question may suggest this as the root cause. In my professional experience, ferreting out this motive from killing husbands may be particularly challenging, for husbands may be too embarrassed, even in custody, to acknowledge their spouse's pregnancy out of wedlock.
Is there always a motive to spousal homicide?
Analysis of husband-wife homicide must include an appraisal of how premeditated the killing was. There is always a conflict, overt or below the surface -- even if the husband is psychotic. Some such homicides may yet occur rather unpredictably. For this reason, suspects in question should be tested as close to the time of arrest as possible, in order to screen for the presence of mind-altering substances -- methamphetamine, cocaine and alcohol in particular.
How is it that marital problems lead to murder? Whatever happened to divorce?
Spousal homicides, as well, are proprietary crimes. Namely, the husband relates to his wife as if she is his property. In so doing, he feels entitled to make the decision to take her life. We may be an enlightened society that is horrified by the notion of other cultures who throw acid on their wives for "honor," but male relatedness to their wives as property persists in different forms. If the financial issues arise after a divorce, the spousal homicide has less to do with the father's sense of failure at his role and more to do with the husband's reacting to his sense of powerlessness. A confident and desirable woman, especially in a setting of suspected infidelity, only adds to a sense of a husband's powerlessness to resolve a conflict without physical harm.
Proprietary thinking is particularly important to understanding why husbands don't just get a divorce. In current times, husbands have every reason to feel that divorce and custody disputes will wipe them out financially or estrange them from their children. For this reason, the morbidly jealous husband with a sense of dominance about relationships with women in general, and a fragile sense of self-esteem otherwise, will continue to feel powerless even after divorce. The killer's rationale, in my professional experience, is "if I can't have you, nobody can."
Spousal homicide, in the absence of a husband's deep depression or psychosis, invariably reflects the highly entitled selfishness of the killer -- whether the record reflects conflict between them or not. The double-life killer and financially driven killer will demonstrate relief in the aftermath; the morbidly jealous killer may unravel.
Do you think that the publicity of cases like Scott and Laci Peterson contribute to spousal homicide? How?
Absolutely. Husbands who see themselves in the "everyman" quality of Scott Peterson see in someone else an option that they might otherwise push out of their heads as unthinkable. In my professional opinion, killers do draw inspiration from cases in which others have made choices they fantasize about. Scott Peterson felt he could get away with a crime bearing only circumstantial evidence. Tara Grant disappeared and was killed. Her husband has not admitted responsibility and was only now arrested. My professional experience has reminded me that some husbands attract suspicion of spousal homicide, but insufficient evidence emerges to prosecute them. Police work is not so easy as paint-by-numbers.
Do you see any parallels to the Scott Peterson killing of his wife, Laci?
Conflicts about Tara Grant's business trips are quite the opposite of Scott Peterson's double life with Amber Frey and possibly others. Homicide in the Peterson case occurred in the setting of Laci Peterson's pregnancy and her inevitable discovery of his infidelity.
The circumstances here are somewhat different. Mr. Grant may have been unfaithful, or may have been making clumsy overtures as an adaptation to his own suspiciousness of his wife. But there is no indication that he was moving on to another life or had established one.
The morbidly jealous husband who kills maintains an emotional entanglement and intensity well after death. His righteous outrage is easy to tap into. Scott Peterson showed himself to be remarkably detached from Laci Peterson after the crime.
Viewers will note, however, Stephen Grant's media-friendly approach to his wife's disappearance. Scott Peterson attempted to use his charm to control the message. Grant, an experienced political operative, would not surprisingly take the same approach. Both men did not give off any sense of menace. That fact is worth remembering: There is no face of domestic homicide, no one who clearly radiates menace when the camera is on and others are watching.
What would you do, as a forensic psychiatrist, to follow up on exploring this case?
Follow the conflict and follow the timeline. Retracing her steps through his travel, the locations Ms. Grant frequented. Cell phone records are key -- including a search for the possibility of a second cell phone. Internet and chat activity reveal the extent of strands of relationships. Stephen Grant reportedly monitored her Internet activity, and the product of that monitoring relative to her disappearance will reveal important information. Retrace other aspects of his attempts to control her movements and her relationships, and what inspired such actions on his part.
In morbid jealousy cases, a husband's movements after the fact may be indistinguishable from the mourning husband and yield few clues. Occasionally, a therapist may be an important informant, but therapists are strongly discouraged from breaching confidentiality. The best witnesses to the prospect of homicide may be her co-workers, friends, or family confidantes.
Often overlooked, in my opinion, are the movements in the aftermath. Financial transactions may not hint at a reconfiguring life beforehand. But the person with the double life will make all of the moves after the fact to separate himself and wipe the decedent clean. This quality, in my professional experience, reflects a husband's shallow attachment to the decedent. As a psychiatrist who regularly engages the bereaved, I would advise that putting affairs of the deceased in order is arduous and often moves awkwardly. A spouse who sweeps his past and the decedent's traces clean inspires my suspicion for showing his attachment to be of the order of a landlord replacing a tenant. My suspicions are heightened when such occurs in the aftermath of murder.
Why is that?
Because murder is so traumatic an event, beyond even unexpected death. In my professional experience, intimates of the murdered are scarred forever -- forever. A person need not be emotional, or even visibly affected. But a person who dispenses with the life traces of the murdered may be trying to hard to let go of the past.
We've learned that Tara Grant's torso was found at their home. What questions would you have as to how that could happen?
Naturally, one would have to understand why the torso was in their home. A person with more pathological attachment would have greater difficulty dispensing with remains, or doing so without being compelled to revisit the site of body disposal. Mr. Grant had several days to remove the body before notifying police that his wife was missing on Feb. 14. Naturally, how police came to search and find the remains when they did is important to understanding how they identified Mr. Grant as a suspect.
Why does a finding of her remains at the home essentially clinch Mr. Grant as her killer?
A stranger would not conceal remains in the victim's home, particularly if the corpse was mutilated and desecrated to the end of dismemberment. Mutilation signatures are left exposed. Strangers remove mutilated remains and hide them.
Dismemberment is such a shocking circumstance to many. In your professional experience, how common is dismemberment, and what leads to it?
Dismemberment is very uncommon. The proliferation of entertainment television about organized crime has educated less-hardened criminals about why gangsters dismember. One might be tempted to interpret dismemberment as a sign of extreme emotional tension between the killer and victim, or even a perversion, but the most common reason for dismemberment is actually crime concealment. Specifically, eliminating the head and limbs eliminates the ease with which a corpse can be identified, including through dentition and fingerprints. DNA is easy enough to attempt to match. Thus, in high profile cases especially, dismemberment is thankfully obsolete, for police obtain DNA in order to better match remains later found.
Those who dismember are often found to have been under the influence of alcohol at the time. Of course, that begets the question of whether that person drank the alcohol in the first place in order to carry out such a dehumanizing exercise.
Dr. Michael Welner is chairman of the The Forensic Panel, a national forensic science practice. Dr. Welner, an associate professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine, is also researching an evidence-based measure, the Depravity Scale (www.depravityscale.org ), which invites Americans to participate in surveys that are being used to help develop a legal standard of what represents the worst of crimes. Dr. Welner's analysis of important cases of the day appears exclusively on ABCnews.com.