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Can Children be Born Innocent?

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On 25 April 2011, in a small community in Nottinghamshire, Daniel Bartlam murdered a woman with a hammer. This was no “ordinary” killing. The woman was Daniel’s own mother, and Daniel himself was just 14 years old. The attack was not the result of an argument that had got out of hand, and it wasn’t triggered by years of abuse at the hands of his mum. It was a totally senseless execution, meticulously premeditated. The boy had even written a story on his computer about a character called Daniel murdering his mother.

Over time, the lurid facts came out: how Daniel had been inspired by a similar killing on Coronation Street, and how he’d spent hours online researching ways to get away with murder. As the police officer who led the investigation put it, “The level of violence, degree of planning and extent of his lies is not only shocking, but it is also chilling that a boy of 14 could do this.”

So here’s the question. How does a child like Daniel Bartlam happen? Was it a catastrophic quirk of nature, or did insidious forces around him sculpt him into a brutal and pitiless killer?

Nature vs Nurture

Dr Kathleen Heide, a pioneering professor of criminology and expert on kids who kill, has mapped out recurring factors that can cause children to do the unthinkable. There tend to be three types of killer. First, the child who has been abused for a long time, and who eventually snap and kill their tormenter. Second, the child who suffers from a mental illness, such as being prone to hallucinations and inner voices. And third, the stubbornly antisocial child who simply does not respect authority and will calmly eliminate any obstacles in their way.

The first is a clear-cut case of “nurture”. But what about the latter two? Mental illness can be a complex and controversial enigma to unravel, and as for “antisocial” children… do early issues with authority figures cause their rebellion to spiral out of control, or is it an inbuilt resistance, locked within their very DNA?

Psychologist Helen Smith, who has evaluated thousands of violent children, is a great believer in nurture being the culprit. “The common theme is a great deal of anger and a feeling the child has been mistreated in some way,” she says.

There was certainly a lot of pent-up anger in James Fairweather, who was just 15 when he slaughtered two complete strangers in Colchester. It later turned out he’d been bullied at school, nicknamed “FA Cup” because of his large ears, and had once committed a robbery only to give out the cash to his schoolmates in a pathetic bid to win favour. He’d also apparently threatened to commit a Columbine-style school massacre. On the face of it, Fairweather’s homicidal drive may have largely been down to nurture.

Daniel Bartlam, meanwhile, had apparently been a turbulent child, urinating in his own bedroom, smashing up his Star Wars toys and showing his stepfather macabre murder fantasies he’d written, yet he was raised in a comfortable, caring environment that shouldn’t have produced such a troubled boy. So was this nature at work? A mind abnormal since birth?

Then there’s perhaps the most clear-cut case of a natural born killer: Sharon Carr, who stabbed an adult to death when she was aged just 12. Carr didn’t just commit the killing, she revelled in it, writing in her diary: “I wish I could kill you again”, “Your terrified screams turn me on”, and – as if clearing up the debate for us – “I swear I was born to be a murderer.”

Perhaps the strongest evidence for the overriding influence of “nature” is the psychopath phenomenon. Psychopaths show a lack of empathy and don’t share our understanding of conventional morality, and these traits can actually be seen in infants. Studies have even suggested parts of a psychopath’s brain are physically smaller than the norm, implying some killers really are born and not made.

“We’d like to think a mother and father’s love can turn everything around,” says psychologist Adrian Raine. “But there are times where parents are doing the very best they can, but the kid – even from the get-go – is just a bad kid.”

The messy mix of influences is often a messy combination of nature and nurture.

Dr Charlotte Barlow

The truth, however, looks to be more complex than a simple either/or. As criminologist Dr Charlotte Barlow puts it: “In terms of what may lead some children to do this… it is often a messy combination of nature and nurture.”

Nature can actually influence nurture. A child with fledgling psychopathic traits – distant, callous, disrespectful of authority – can alienate adults, tire out parents and become an outcast from other kids. Leading this child to become, eventually, a remorseless killer. Many experts believe that it’s possible to curb the “evil” impulses if the signs are seen early. But if they’re left unchecked, the consequences could be the stuff of nightmares.