Monday, August 15, 2016

The Killer of Little Shepherds -- A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science

Photo: The book, from the author's own webpage. Here is an overview of the book itself.

Outstanding book that gives you a real feel for the lives and time of those involved. Written in a newspaper-like fashion, with no author intrusion at all--rare for this genre--and with a distant tone that is just right, almost too-distant, but not quite. Cast of real characters include serial killer Joseph Vacher, the French investigators, lawyers and judges involved in the trial, and his eleven known victims--there may have been as many as 25-30 total. One of my favorite investigators, Alphonse Bertillon, is covered a little. He was a French criminologist, one of the world's first accepted criminal profilers, and he's the author of one of my favorite, true-life quotes: "One can see only what one observes, and one observes only things which are already in the mind." Feast on that for awhile.

Vacher was a psychotic, narcissistic, borderline schizophrenic vagabond who killed ten little shepherd boys (and one or two girls) and one old lady. He sodomized and brutalized the bodies after death. What made him unique amongst killers of his type, besides for how long he got away with it, and the list of ineptness he festooned in others who associated with him, was that he was one if the first to declare himself not responsible for his crimes due to insanity. The prosecution disproved this by showing that his MO was so consistent that the perpetration of his crimes must have taken some thought, and forethought. They also showed that his talent for leaving the area quickly to avoid capture showed that he could rationalize--otherwise, why go to such consistent lengths to avoid capture?

The author concludes that his case is also unique because he was declared fit to stand trial (therefore, sane), and responsible for his crimes (so, not insane), and yet also clearly had at least one mental illness--paranoid schizophrenia, with a healthy persecution complex and fits of sexual mania. Therefore, it's possible that he was responsible for his crimes, yet also classifiably mentally ill. The author says he believes Vacher would also be found guilty today, just as he was in the late 1890s. But this reviewer is not quite so sure.

Photo: Joseph Vacher posing in prison after his capture in 1897. From the book, and this New York Times Review website for the book.  Vacher said that the hat symbolized his purity, and the keys, which he borrowed from a prison guard, symbolized the keys to heaven that he'd receive. Vachon believed he was protected by God and doing God's work. Just in case you were wondering

Certainly this case highlights the question of how much a mental illness can be said to make someone responsible, or not responsible, for his crimes. In today's heavily-diagnosed America (Donald Trump has been said lately to be harboring a potent textbook narcissistic disorder, and one wonders how fit he is to be President because of it. Look up the symptoms and I think you'll agree.), in which it seems that more people than ever may be diagnosed with a mental illness (and I mean that seriously and without judgment), this is a real question for our time. If a great many people are a classifiable something, how much does that make us culpable for our actions?

An interesting philosophical thought came up while I was reading. Another questions posed: If someone is guilty of murder (as Vacher was, and he was guillotined), and if that someone is responsible for his crime, yet is also suffering a mental illness that maybe helped instigate those crimes, can that person receive capital punishment? Again, where is the line drawn? Someone who is against capital punishment, as I am, would say No, no matter what the variables are. But those not against it, or even those on the fence, may use what I'll call the Rabid Lion Theory.

It goes loosely like this: If a lion is charging at you, obviously intent on killing you, don't you have the right to defend yourself and shoot it? If the answer is yes, what does it matter if it has rabies or not? You still have the right to kill it to defend yourself. But let's say it's foaming at the mouth and obviously has rabies. It's therefore, in a way, not responsible for its actions, as maybe it doesn't want to kill you, but the rabies is controlling it. (We can call this the Cujo Theory as well.) But even so, don't you have the right to defend yourself and kill it anyway, even if it's not responsible for its own actions?

Now, you're French society (or any society, including this one), and the rabid lion is Joseph Vacher (or any serial killer who has frequently escaped and who will obviously kill again). Don't you, as the society, have the right to defend yourself against the rabid killer, even if he's not responsible for his actions?

A real slippery slope, especially in these heavily-medicated times. And it's not going to get easier.

But I digress, a little. This book is more a history of really bad rural police work, really shoddy asylum practices, and a completely disorganized system of law if the murderer has the intelligence, good fortune, or whatever, to kill people in more than one jurisdiction. Surprisingly, this is still a big problem today (especially in these United States, and for a great number of reasons), but it was a catastrophic issue in the days before Interpol, before anyone thought to write down similarities of crimes committed across a large area over a number of years. Simply stated, nobody communicated well with each other, across provinces, just like today, where communication between departments, jurisdictions, states, and federal and regional agencies are slipshod and often testy.

This should sound very familiar for those who read about crime. Remember JonBenet? The local cops in Denver and the state and federal people were stepping on, over, and through each other immediately, screwing up the crime scene, the evidence, the witnesses, the testimonies, and every procedure and law, known and unknown to them, beyond repair. One of the guys in charge said the whole thing was botched beyond repair within a few hours of the reported crime.

And so it was with Vacher, until three guys started paying attention to some unsolved crimes, all of which involved the killing of young shepherd boys and girls, in the middle of rural nowhere, with the same MO (attack from behind, cut the throat, drag the body behind bushes or trees, sodomize and butcher the body quickly, change out of your clothes into clean clothes, and walk quickly away, often for a great many miles) and with the same descriptions of a vagabond seen in the area (short, bearded, scarred, gave off a dangerous vibe, couldn't talk correctly, and swelled foully because of yellow pus that drained from one ear). Sounds like something that anyone would put together, right? But with all the crimes happening all across very rural, nowhere France, before computers or phones, and with no system to keep track of such things, and no way to communicate?

So the history of forensics and crime is covered here, and it's all very informative and interesting.

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