Why Serial Killers Interest Me

“Why do you write about serial killers?” The question has been put to me in various ways by more than a handful people, colleagues and non-colleagues. What surprises me is that ‘serial killers’ is just one of the many, many other subjects that I write and have written about, yet it comes up for a fleeting discussion every now and then. I wonder why. Why should it intrigue people that much? May be the question they ask is not the question they really want to ask.

I may pretend that the subject of serial killers is only as much of a subject as any other, and if some people find it difficult to stomach, it is their problem. But that would be nothing but an attempt at ducking the issue because serial killers are not just ‘subjects’ for intellectual discussion. They kill remorselessly and it is shockingly abnormal for human beings to act that way. So, perhaps what actually intrigues people is my rather ‘excessive’ interest in something that they find a little too odd for me to be interested in, or so they think.

Serial killers are generally considered ‘sick’, ‘mentally deficient’ and ‘incurably insane’. How can anyone sane even stand such ghastly tales, let alone read, research and write about them. Agreed. So, what’s it with me? What they actually want to ask is this: “Are you really so insensitive to human suffering that you can write about such revolting acts so unflinchingly and with such cold detachment?”

Frankly, it took quite a bit of honest introspection for me to get to the answer and I am still not sure if I have been able to nail it in full. Generally, serial killers are dismissed as too abnormal to warrant a discussion, for we take them to belong to a non-human category on account of their inhumanly gruesome crimes. But then, if they are so abnormal as to fall in a category of their own, by what right to we apply our standards to them? Why are they subject to our laws, if they are so radically different from us?

Taking this line of thought might itself offend some of us, for it sounds like I am just about to advance the defense of insanity for the serial killers. But that’s the last thing on my mind because I believe serial killers, contrary to popular belief, are normal people with some of them quite exceptionally intelligent and undeniably brighter than many ‘normal’ human beings. So, in punishing them, law generally makes no mistake, but in considering them abysmally abnormal, perhaps, we do.

The fact that they are not ‘abnormal’ is the core of my interest, for had they been abnormal, it would be easy to accept them as ‘differently made’, which could explain away quite a lot. It is their normalcy that is both intriguing and disturbing.

Like Dennis Andrew Nilsen, the killer of 15 men, famously said, “A mind can be evil without being abnormal.” What’s interesting is that they do not consider it right to kill. Most of them might also agree that killing for pleasure is an abnormally perverse activity, yet they would indulge in it. They have the same moral system that we have, the same mechanism to identify a moral construct and also the situations in which such a construct is relevant and comes into play. They also have the rationale required to apply morality to the available set of circumstances, but all of that fails to prevent them from killing.

Not that they are fearless, for they do try to destroy evidence and eradicate all such traces that could lead the law enforcement authorities to them, which indicates that they have all the characteristics of rational human beings. But there is a disconnect somewhere. And this is plainly scary because disconnect is not the existence or absence of something but the absence of the connection between the existent sets of psychical elements. From this, it is possible to say that we all carry potential serial killers in us, and it is simply about triggering a certain kind of disconnect.

This is where the law has to tread carefully because all mental abnormalities can be seen as a disconnect of one kind or the other. And some of the abnormalities might render the person in question incapable of standing trial. It follows that all serial killers are not ‘normal’ enough to stand a criminal trial. Someone incapable of understanding the nature and the consequences of his or her act is easily insane and for that reason incapable of standing trial, but in case of serial killers, the abnormality might be set much deeper. Whether such abnormality is capable of neutralizing accountability or not is a tricky question with no general answer. Interestingly, intelligence alone does not clinch the case for the prosecution because mental ailments like Schizophrenia might afflict extraordinarily sharp people – Nobel laureate, John Nash, for instance.

No particular mental ailment has been found responsible for serial killing tendencies though some of the serial killers have been adjudged incompetent to stand trial on account of mental instability. Serial killers are a challenge to both law and psychology because the available psychological explanations for their behaviour leave a number of legally relevant questions unanswered.

Originally published as part of my monthly column — STREET LAWYER — in LAWYERS UPDATE [April 2011 Issue; Vol. XVII, Part 4]


Corruption in Judiciary: Let truth precede judgment

Hope is the engine that propels life – individual and collective. Corruption has undeniably permeated all surfaces of public life, even those that were previously considered impregnable. The breach has been complete with only a few pockets of honesty and impartiality tucked away like stolen diamonds, or so it seems. An overwhelming majority of these ‘pockets’ are found in the judiciary, and if the recent unsavory aspersions cast on the holders of judicial offices are anything to go by, even these pockets seem to be dissolving at howsoever slow a rate. And our collective hope seems to be developing disturbing fissures.

Justice Dinakaran, who had already been recommended for elevation to the Supreme Court by the Supreme Court collegium headed by the then Chief Justice of India, Justice KG Balakrishnan, is now facing impeachment proceedings in Parliament on as many 16 corruption and land-grab charges, including the charge of inappropriate administrative actions as Chief Justice of Karnataka High Court to aid dishonest judicial decisions. The charges are quite alarming, to put rather mildly.

The Dinakaran probe did not leave Chief Justice Balakrishnan untouched because the collegium headed by him had cleared Justice Dinakaran’s elevation to the Supreme Court, and one of the most eminent Supreme Court lawyers and former Union Law Minister, Shanti Bhushan, scathingly remarked that Chief Justice Balakrishnan was “recommending all corrupt persons to become judges of the Supreme Court…particularly Justice Dinakaran was close to him…” While Mr. Bhushan’s did not categorically call the ex-CJI corrupt, he did in some measure insinuate to that effect. However, if the accusation is simply based on the fact that one of those recommended to be elevated was tainted, it is ill-founded because other judges were also similarly recommended and there is nothing to show that they were not unblemished.

One of the grave issues that Chief Justice Balakrishnan had to deal with during his tenure as the CJI was that of a Union Minister’s attempt at influencing a Madras High Court judge, Justice S. Reghupati, to have a favourable order passed in a criminal proceeding. When Justice Reghupati mentioned the attempt in the open court and it was reported in the media, Justice Balakrishnan took serious note of it and also remarked that if it was true, contempt of court proceedings could be initiated against the minister. He demanded a report from the then Chief Justice ofMadrasHigh Court, Justice H.L. Gokhale, on the issue. Justice Gokhale duly submitted his report to the CJI.

Although Justice Gokhale’s report to the CJI is not in public domain, it is still reasonable to assume – though it would still be conjectural – that Justice Gokhale, denying any personal knowledge of the incident, must have forwarded Justice Reghupati’s letter to Justice Balakrishnan. When asked about the Justice Gokhale’s report, Justice Balakrishnan categorically stated that the report did not mention the name of any Union Minister.

Justice Gokhale, on his part, set the record straight by saying that Justice Reghupati’s letter, which was forwarded to Justice Balakrishnan, clearly mentions the name of Union Minister A. Raja. The media played it up and quite a lot was made of this apparent inconsistency. It was projected that Justice Balakrishnan had something to hide or someone to shield.

Interestingly, there is no inconsistency between the statements issued by the two Justices. Justice Gokhale’s report might not have mentioned the minister’s name because Justice Reghupati’s letter to Justice Gokhale had been forwarded to Justice Balakrishnan. And since Justice Gokhale could not have added anything to the facts stated in Justice Reghupati’s letter, there was no occasion for him to mention Raja’s name. And, of course, Justice Reghupati never wrote to Justice Balakrishnan. So, there is no apparent falsity in either Justice Balakrishnan’s or Justice Gokhale’s statement, neither are the two statements strictly incompatible.

If Justice Gokhale’s report itself did not mention or indict Raja, which is quite possible because he did not personally witness the incident and could only cite Justice Reghupati’s version in this regard, it is not unimaginable that Justice Balakrishnan decided to rest the issue on the ground that he could only act on the basis of Justice Gokhale’s report, which did not indict any minister. Justice Reghupati’s letter did mention the name, but it was not addressed to the CJI. So, the matter technically remained in the hands of Justice Gokhale, who was fully empowered to initiate contempt proceedings against the minister.

Of course, nothing could stop the CJI to take matters in his hands, and his inaction might also be considered an error on his part but is not necessarily indicative of bias.

The other serious charge against Justice Balakrishnan is that his relatives garnered immense wealth during the time he was the CJI. To establish bias it must be established that any of his judicial or administrative actions were motivated by consideration for his relatives. It is not about whether his relatives ‘derived’ any benefits from his position but whether he ‘allowed’, ‘directed’ or ‘channeled’ the benefits to them or facilitated such channeling in any manner. So far there is nothing to suggest any such thing. Therefore, in absence of concrete evidence, we must exercise caution and not cast premature aspersions on the former holder of the nation’s highest judicial office.

Originally written for and published in LAWYERS UPDATE [April 2011 Issue; Vol. XVII, Part 4]

Passive Euthanasia: Judicial Spot-Running?

Passive Euthanasia is not ‘active’ or ‘positive’ killing. And Passive Euthanasia is morally superior than, say, ‘Active Euthanasia’. These are the two fundamental assumptions on which the recent Supreme Court judgment builds its tacit approval of a conditional ‘inactively executed medical termination of life’, which might sound like – and might also be – a contradiction in terms.

So, is ‘letting die’ better than ‘killing’? More importantly, are the two different in all circumstances?

A man suffering from chronic asthma is hit by a sudden bout of intense asthma attack, and desperately reaches out for the lifesaving inhaler, which is now in the hands of someone who wants him dead. This angel of death grabs the inhaler, walks out of the room and closes the door behind him to ‘let the fellow die’ a painful death.

So, did he ‘kill’ or did he simply ‘let die’? Actually, in ‘letting’ the person die he ‘killed’, or, to put it differently, he killed by letting die. The killer is as much a killer as he would be, had he put a knife through the man’s heart or a bullet through his brain, for it is the intention determines the nature of the act. In ‘Passive Euthanasia’ the intention is to kill, which makes it as active as ‘active’ can be. And if it is about interfering or not interfering with the ‘impending death’ or ‘natural course of life’, every single pill that you swallowed and every injection that you took did exactly that by standing between you and the natural consequences of the illness, which could as well be death.

The second premise that somehow ‘letting die’ is morally better off than ‘killing’ is equally ill-founded because when life is insufferable and death desirable, any delay in ending life is abjectly and indefensibly cruel. Among the martial communities in olden times, if a warrior was incurably injured and was dying a slow, painful death, he would be given a swift death unless he or she desired otherwise because delayed death meant suffering prolonged, which is cruel by all means. So, if death is better, terminate life immediately.

Thus, not only ‘letting die’ is much the same as ‘killing’, but is also morally inferior than the latter in cases fit for euthanasia. So, the very idea of and the whole talk surrounding ‘Passive Euthanasia’ is completely pointless, for it is unwise to look for a ‘middle’ or ‘moderate’ path where none exists.

The two central issues that cannot be left unaddressed are: One, whether or not the otherwise absolute Right to Life includes right to die in certain circumstances? If yes, what should be the distinctive nature of such circumstances? And, two, who has the ‘right’ – not the expertise or wisdom – to decide on behalf of the patient that his or her life is not worth living? Let’s not forget that we are dealing with the most fundamental, inalienable right, and this is about someone else deciding to forego what even the person himself cannot in ordinary circumstances.

Therefore, the legal position of euthanasia cannot be conclusively determined until and unless these two questions are satisfactorily answered. And we have been skipping and spot-running so far.

Originally written for and published in LAWYERS UPDATE as Opinion to the Cover Story [April 2011 Issue; Vol. XVII, Part 4]