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Disfigure it out: A brief look at post-mortem mutilation in murder cases

A body of an adult female of about 25 years old was found dead in a naked condition in a reserved forest area in South Delhi in June, 2006 by police. There was information to [the] police via public call as 2-3 people had killed one lady after [having] sex [with her] and [then running] away. Further enquiry, revealed that they all had consumed alcohol along with the lady. They also had sexual intercourse with her using condom…Following the quarrel they killed her by hitting her head with a heavy stone. After killing her, they also tried to destroy her identity by burning her face with wooden stick and twigs and her clothes. One of them also introduced a wine bottle inside [her] vagina. There were multiple postmortem injuries in particular pattern over left side lower part of chest, abdomen and inguinal regions including upper part of left thigh. All [the] accused were subsequently arrested by the police”.

This shocking account of a brutal murder was the opening paragraph in a paper by Dr. B.L. Chaudhary and his colleagues in a 2007 issue of the Journal of Indian Academy of Forensic Medicine (JIAFM). Although an increasingly common theme in television and film homicides, post-mortem mutilation of a dead person’s body by perpetrators is arguably much rarer than the incidence in fictionalized drama. The JIAFM paper noted that the majority of such cases typically involve body “dismemberment for the purpose of disposing or hiding a body or of preventing identification”.

A national study carried out in Sweden by Dr. Jovan Rajs and colleagues in the Journal of Forensic Sciences found that only 22 deaths over a 30-year period (1961-1990) had been criminally mutilated and/or dismembered. These were then classified into one of three types: (i) defensive, (ii) offensive (i.e., lust murder) and (iii) necromanic mutilation. They reported that the perpetrators of the defensive and aggressive post-mortem mutilation were typically “disorganized” (i.e., alcoholics, drug abusers, mentally disordered) whereas the lust murderers were typically “organized” with a long history of violent crimes. The JIAFM paper summarized the findings of Raus and colleagues:

“The characteristics of the mutilations were diverse. In cases of murder committed in association with sexual deviation, wounding is usually limited to the breasts and sexual organs. Corpse mutilation can also be of a symbolic nature as in cases of mafia murders (revenge punishment) and then it is associated with torturing the victim and with the motive of destruction of identify of victim”.

In the case of the female victim reported by Chaudhary and colleagues, they reported that it was the victim’s head, face, and chest that were burned, destroyed, and mutilated post-mortem. They speculated that this was done to either (i) to prevent identification of the victim, (ii) to make it difficult to determine the cause of death, or (iii) as an act of depersonalization as it is often seen “when the murder is disorganized and has a close relation to his victim or offensive mutilation as general act of frustration”. Why the men had inserted a foreign object into the woman’s vagina was less clear. The authors speculated that it may have been because of (i) frustration of a non-performing sexual partner because of heavy intoxication, (ii) an extortion demand by victim, (iii) blackmail by the victim, or (iv) psychopathic tendencies of the perpetrators can carried out for sadistic pleasure. However, they also added that:

“In this case as there was alleged history of consensual sexual activity which could be or could not be as body had injuries so it could be non-consensual activity also. Apparently there was no smell in the [gastric] contents but samples were sent for alcohol screening/concentration estimation. In [the medical] literature, various materials and objects like chilly powder, corrosives, metal or wooden sticks are introduced into genitalia as a part of punishment for unfaithfulness or infidelity. Males suffering from depression due to erectile dysfunctions, premature ejaculation and impotency may indulge in extreme frustration cases. In this psychological profiling of the accused can also be helpful in knowing for such abnormal instincts. At times, provocative words by female partner about their malehood could trigger such impulsive murder and mutilation”

Post-mortem mutilation while extreme can sometimes border on the almost unbelievable. For instance, Dr. J. Kunz and Dr. A. Gross published a paper in a 2001 issue of the American Journal of Forensic and Medical Pathology which as Ronseal would claim “does exactly what it says on the tin” as it was entitled Victim’s scalp on the killer’s head: An unusual case of criminal postmortem mutilation”. The paper reported that:

“After killing his father, the son decapitated his body and dissected the scalp free, forming a mask of the father’s head and neck. The young man wore the scalp-mask over his own head to imitate the father. The motive of the murder was revenge, and the postmortem mutilation was the realization of the perpetrator’s fantasies, symbolically representing a penalty for the reprehensible past life of his father”.

Another extreme case of postmortem mutilation following murder was reported by Dr. Tomasz Konopka and his colleagues in a 2006 issue of the Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology. In this instance, a Polish man cut up the corpse and dismembered the body into 850 fragments. He “employed various tools to divide the body into fragments and subsequently boiled the pieces to reduce their volume”. This reduced the body volume by 30kg. The murderer then placed all the body fragments into two large pots in a space under his stairwell and then plastered over the wall to hide the body. Another paper by Dr. Konopka and colleagues in a 2007 issue of Legal Medicine examined 23 cases of dismembered bodies in the 1968-2005 period at the Cracow Department of Forensic Medicine. Of these, 17 were cases of defensive mutilation, three were offensive mutilation and two were dismemberment (decapitation, and direct cause of death). One case remained unclassified where the murderer dissected free skin from the whole torso. They concluded that:

“Apart from rare cases of necrophilia, the victim of dismemberment is always a victim of homicide. Homicides ending with corpse dismemberment are most commonly committed by a person close to, or at least acquainted with the victim and they are performed at the site of homicide, generally in the place inhabited by the victim, the perpetrator or shared by both. Such instances are generally not planned by the perpetrator and rarely serial in character”.

Finally, I came across an interesting 2009 paper by a Finnish team led by Dr. Häkkänen-Nyholm in the Journal of Forensic Sciences. The authors noted that research relating to mutilation of bodies by murderers was “sparse”. They estimated the rate of mutilation of the victim’s body in Finnish homicides. To do this they examined all crime and forensic reports of homicide offenders from 1995–2004 (n = 676). Only 13 murders (2.2%) involved postmortem mutilation. They concluded that:

“Educational and mental health problems in childhood, inpatient mental health contacts, self-destructiveness, and schizophrenia were significantly more frequent in offenders guilty of mutilation. Mutilation bore no significant association with psychopathy or substance abuse. The higher than usual prevalence of developmental difficulties and mental disorder of this subsample of offenders needs to be recognized”.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Chaudhary, B.L., Murty, O.P. & Singh, D. (2007). Foreign objects in genitalia: Homicide with destruction of identity – A case report. Journal of Indian Academy of Forensic Medicine, 29(4), 135-137.

Häkkänen-Nyholm, H., Weizmann‐Henelius, G., Salenius, S., Lindberg, N., & Repo-Tiihonen, E. (2009). Homicides with mutilation of the victim’s body. Journal of Forensic Sciences, 54(4), 933-937.

Hladík, J., Štefan, J., Srch, M., & Pilin, A. (2000). A rare case of evisceration. International Journal of Legal Medicine, 113(2), 107-109.

Konopka, T., Bolechala, F., & Strona, M. (2006). An unusual case of corpse dismemberment. The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, 27(2), 163-165.

Konopka, T., Strona, M., Bolechała, F., & Kunz, J. (2007). Corpse dismemberment in the material collected by the Department of Forensic Medicine, Cracow, Poland. Legal Medicine, 9(1), 1-13.

Kunz, J. & Gross, A. (2001). Victim’s scalp on the killer’s head: An unusual case of criminal postmortem mutilation. American Journal of Forensic and Medical Pathology, 22(3), 327-31.

Rajs, J., Lundstrom, M., Broberg, M., Lidberg, L., & Lindquist, O. (1998). Criminal mutilation of the human body in Sweden: A thirty year medico-legal and forensic psychiatric study. Journal of Forensic Sciences, 43(3), 563-80.

Simonsen, J. (1989). A sadistic homicide. The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, 10(2), 159-163.

Türk, E. E., Püschel, K., & Tsokos, M. (2004). Features characteristic of homicide in cases of complete decapitation. The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, 25(1), 83-86.

Kill crazy about you: A brief overview of erotophonophilia (aka ‘lust murder’)

Erotophonophilia is a sexual paraphilia in which individuals derive sexual pleasure and arousal from murdering (or imagining they are murdering) someone. Many academics in the forensic field refer to such killings as ‘lust murder’. However, there are countless slightly different definitions of sexual murder depending on which academic text you read. For instance, Dr. Louis Schlesinger in his 2004 book Sexual Murder noted all these slightly different terms and definitions for sexual killing:

  • Lust murder: “The connection between lust and desire to kill” and “The sadistic crime alone becomes the equivalent of coitus” (Krafft-Ebing, 1886)
  • Sadistic lust murder: “After killing the victim, the murderer tortures, cuts, maims, or slashes the victim … on parts [of the body] that contain strong sexual significance to him and serves as sexual stimulation” (De River, 1958)
  • Sadistic murder: “Distinguished from the sadistic homicide by the involvement of a mutilating attack or displacement of the breasts, rectum, or genitals” (Hazelwood & Douglas, 1980)
  • Lust murder:A sexual factor is clearly apparent … or deeper study will sometimes reveal that sexual conflict underlies the act of aggression” (MacDonald, 1986)
  • Sex murder: “Murder with evidence or observations that indicate[s] that the murder was sexual in nature” (Ressler, Burgess & Douglas, 1986)
  • Erotophonophilia: “Murder associated with sexual sadism as defined in [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders]” (Money, 1990)
  • Sexual homicide: “Involves a sexual element (activity) as the basis for the sequence of acts leading to death” (Douglas, Burgess, Burgess & Ressler, 1992)
  • Sadistic murder: “The offender derives the greatest satisfaction from the victim’s response to torture” (Douglas, Burgess, Burgess & Ressler, 1992)
  • Sexual murder: “The killing may also be closely bound to the sexual element of an attack … the offender’s control of his victim, and her pain and humiliation, become linked to his sexual arousal” (Grubin, 1994)
  • Lust killing: “The primary goal is to kill the victim as part of a ritualized attack … the motivation … is the enactment of some type of fantasy that has preoccupied him or her for some time” (Malmquist, 1996)

For many, erotophonophilia (or whichever definition you care to choose from the list above) is the most heinous of all paraphilias. Erotophonophiles have extreme violent fantasies and typically kill their victims during sex and/or mutilate their victims’ sexual organs (the latter of which is usually post-mortem). Most erotophonophiles are male although females with the paraphilia are known to exist. Lust murderers are known to be psychologically and behaviourally different from those who kill out of revenge or anger displacement.

Complete fantasy fulfillment is rarely achieved and the fantasy continually evolves based on experiences with prior victims. This is one of the reasons that the behaviour may be repeated continually until they die or caught by law enforcement agencies. Erotophonophilia may overlap with other sexual paraphilias including necrophilia, sexual sadism, and/or sexual cannibalism. Such behaviour may be fuelled by use of extreme pornography and/or psychoactive drug use (e.g., alcohol, cocaine, etc.). Unsurprisingly, the group of people most likely to be erotophonophiles are serial killers. Such people utilize sexual torture as a mechanism to degrade, humiliate, subjugate, and ultimately control their victims. However, Professor Don Grubin has written papers in journals such as Criminal Behavior and Mental Health and the British Journal of Psychiatry arguing that not all sex murderers are sadists.

Erotophonophiles typically choose their victims on the basis of sexual attractiveness although there might be one particular physical attribute that is sexualized by the killer (such as a particular body shape, hair style, skin colour, etc.). This is referred to as an erotophonophile’s “ideal victim type” (IVT). After a victim has been selected, and prior to the killing, the erotophonophile may engage in a range of predatory behavours (such as stalking).

Influential research carried out by Dr. R.P. Brittain in the 1970s and followed up by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the 1990s described a number of characteristics of typical lust murderers. They were characterized as over-controlled, timid, introverted, sexually inexperienced, highly deviant, and having violent sadistic fantasies. However, more recent research has not necessarily supported the early claims made by Brittain. Professor Grubin’s work suggests much of this early work is a composite picture of a lust murderer based more on clinical impressions as opposed to systematic research.

One of the most cited studies in the area of lust murder is a 1990 paper by Dr. P.E. Dietz and colleagues published in the Bulletin of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law. They examined 30 sexual sadists (most of which were sexual murderers). They found that the majority were employed white males (75%), married (50%), had a history of homosexual experience (43%), and cross-dressed (20%). They also reported that they had parents who had divorced or had marital infidelities (50%), suffered physical abuse (23%), suffered sexual abuse (20%), and abused drugs other than alcohol (50%). Almost all the sample had planned their offences (93%), the majority of which the victim was unknown to them (83%). The victims were typically abducted, held against their will for over 24 hours, blindfolded, bound and gagged. All victims were tortured, and typical activities included forced oral sex, rape, and forced insertion of foreign objects vaginally. Many subsequent studies have reported similar findings. However, the main problem with many of these studies is that there was no (non-sadistic) control group against which the results could be compared.

A study by Dr. T. Gratzer and Dr. J.M. Bradford published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences compared their results with that of the Dietz study by examining both sexual offending sadists (n=28) and non-sadists (n=29) many of whom were sexual murderers. Results were similar to those of the Dietz study, including high rates of offence planning (82%), torture (78%), and physical abuse during childhood (43%). However, they also noted some differences including greater use of bondage, and anal rape.

Studies carried out by the FBI have reported that that sexually sadistic murderers exhibit psychopathy and narcissism. However, other more recent studies have not found relationships with psychopathy so it has been suggested that FBI samples may represent a particularly extreme group of sadistic sex murderers compared to other published studies. Research by Professor Grubin (comparing 21 men who had murdered a woman during a sexual attack with 121 rapists who did not kill their victims) found that sexual murderers had significantly higher rates of social isolation and difficulties within sexual relationships. However, sexual murderers and rapists didn’t differ in their utilization of pornography and deviant sexual fantasy.

Finally, a couple of recent book chapters on sexually sadistic murderers (published in 2005 and 2006) by Drs. J. Proulx, E. Blais, and E. Beauregard (2005) have found that sadistic sexual offenders were more likely than non-sadistic sexual offenders to have (i) planned to kidnap their victims, (ii) used bondage and weapons, (iii) engaged in expressive violence, humiliation, and torture of victims, (iv) inserted objects into the victims’ vaginas, (v) strangled their victims, and (vi) engaged in intercourse and mutilation of their victims after death.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Aggrawal A. (2009). Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Bartholomew, A., Milte, K., & Galbally, A. (1975). Sexual murder: Psychopathology and psychiatric jurisprudential considerations. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 8, 152– 163.

Brittain, R. (1970). The sadistic murderer. Medicine, Science, and the Law, 10, 198-207.

De River, J.P. (1958). Crime and the sexual psychopath. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas.

Dietz, P.E., Hazelwood, R.R., & Warren, J. (1990). The sexually sadistic criminal and his offenses. Bulletin of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 18, 163–178.

Douglas, J.E., Burgess, A.W., Burgess, A.G., & Ressler, R.K. (1992). Crime classification manual. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Gratzer, T., & Bradford, J. M. (1995). Offender and offense characteristics of sexual sadists: A comparative study. Journal of Forensic Sciences, 40, 450–455.

Grubin, D. (1994). Sexual murder. British Journal of Psychiatry, 165, 624–629.

Hazelwood, R.R. & Douglas, J.E. (1980). The lust murderer. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, 49, 1–5.

Hickey, E.W. (Ed.), Sex crimes and paraphilia. New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Krafft-Ebing, R. von (1886). Psychopathia sexualis (C.G. Chaddock, Trans.). Philadelphia: F.A. Davis.

MacDonald, J.M. (1986). The murderer and his victims (2nd Edition.). Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas.

Malmquist, C.P. (1996). Homicide: A psychiatric perspective. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press.

Money, J. (1990). Forensic sexology: paraphilic serial rape (biastophilia) and lust murder (erotophonophilia). American Journal of Psychotherapy, 44, 26-36.

Proulx, J., Blais, E., & Beauregard, E. (2005). Sadistic sexual offenders. In J. Proulx, E. Blais, & E. Beauregard (Eds.), Sexual murderers: A comparative analysis and new perspectives (pp. 107–122). Chichester, UK: Wiley.

Proulx, J., Blais, E., & Beauregard, E. (2006). Sadistic sexual aggressors. In W.L. Marshall, Y.M. Fernandez, L.E. Marshall, & G.A. Serran (Eds.), Sexual offender treatment: Controversial issues (pp. 61–77). Chichester, UK: Wiley.

Ressler, R.K., Burgess, A.W., and Douglas, J.E. (1988). Sexual homicide: Patterns and motives. New York: Free Press.

Schlesinger, L.B. (2004). Sexual murder: Catathymic and compulsive homicides. London: CRC Press.