December 19, 2012

Predicting horrific acts still less science than art

Forensic psychiatrists have only begun to detect patterns in violent-prone offenders.

By MELISSA HEALY Los Angeles Times

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Pallbearers carry a casket out of St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church on Tuesday after funeral services for Jessica Rekos, 6, who was among those killed when Adam Lanza walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School and opened fire.

The Associated Press

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Adam Lanza

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'Cutting Adam Lanza's hair was a very long half hour'

NEWTOWN, Conn. - As a teenager, Adam Lanza would come in for a haircut about every six weeks without speaking or looking at anyone and always accompanied by his mother, said stylists at a salon in the town where Lanza gunned down 27 people last week, including his mother, before killing himself.

He stopped coming in a few years ago, and the employees at the salon thought he had moved away, said stylist Bob Skuba.

The comments from him and his colleagues were among the first describing how the Lanzas interacted with each other. Investigators have found no letters or diaries that could explain the attack, one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history.

Cutting Adam Lanza's hair "was a very long half an hour. It was a very uncomfortable situation," stylist Diane Harty said. She said that she never heard his voice and that Nancy Lanza also hardly spoke.

Another stylist, Jessica Phillips, echoed their descriptions of the Lanzas and added that Nancy Lanza would give her son directions about what to do and where to go.

Adam would move only "when his mother told him to," Skuba said.

"I would say, 'Adam, come on.' He wouldn't move," Skuba said. "And his mother would have to say, 'Adam, come on, he's ready.' It was like I was invisible."

He said Adam also wouldn't move from his chair after his hair was cut until his mother told him to.

If a stylist would ask Adam a question, Skuba said, his mother would answer.

"He would just be looking down at the tiles ... the whole time," Skuba said.

Former classmates have previously described Adam Lanza as intelligent but remote, and former high school adviser described him as anxious and shy. Several people who knew his mother have described her as a devoted parent.

Divorce paperwork released this week showed that Nancy Lanza had the authority to make all decisions regarding Adam's upbringing. The divorce was finalized in September 2009, when Adam Lanza was 17.

-- The Associated Press


In recent years, research has turned from a sole reliance on matters of nurture to investigate the genetic underpinnings of violence. Studying violent offenders, a pair of Duke University researchers has found that while a personal history of childhood trauma and abuse is common among those who harm others, that experience interacts powerfully with a genetic variation that influences the neurotransmitter serotonin.

Their research suggests that for roughly 3 percent of the population, nature and nurture combine to increase an individual's risk of engaging in violence almost fivefold.

Even if abused children were to be screened for the genetic variation, however, "There would be a fair number of false positives," said Dr. William Bernet, a forensic psychiatrist and emeritus professor at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. "It does not inevitably make a person violent."

Finally, research into suicide -- a violent impulse turned inward -- speaks clearly about the predictive value of access to guns. Where troubled people can get hold of them, said the University of Michigan's Teo, their prospects of hurting someone -- or themselves -- go up dramatically.

"It's not only common sense," Teo said. "We have good evidence that removing access to lethal weapons reduces tragic outcomes."

At best, researchers say, predicting who will be violent is more like predicting a hurricane's track than issuing a yes-or-no judgment.


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