Kids Who Kill: Evil Up Close

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Emma Kenny on what motivated sick child-killer Aaron Campbell

Watch Kids Who Kill: Evil Up Close episode 1 in full

Kids Who Kill: Evil Up Close, is the new five-part series that examines the UK’s most prominent child killers and their shocking murders.

Over five episodes the series tells the stories of child killers, Aaron Campbell, Kim Edwards and Lucas Markham, Stephen Hough, Mathew Hardman, and Alyssa Bustamante.

Kids Who Kill features expert testimony from those involved in the cases to relate the horrific events and includes contributions from former Detective Peter Bleksley and psychologist and TV presenter Emma Kenny.

Emma Kenny spoke to Crime+Investigation about the show, shining a light on the peculiar psychology and motivations of child murderers.

In a series full of shocking crimes, it is probably episode one, the case of Aaron Campbell who murdered and sexually abused six-year-old Alesha MacPhail which is the most disturbing. 'Aaron Campbell is one of those very rare humans that would keep you up at night as a parent' admits Kenny.

Outwardly, this clean-cut wannabee YouTube star, living in the small Scottish community on the isle of Bute seemed utterly conventional. 'He was quite charming, he had friends and he had have supportive parents,' explains Kenny. 'Yet bubbling beneath the surface was a really sexually sadistic killer.'

Sadly, it is not so easy to pinpoint killers like Campbell, Kenny explains. 'One of the problems is that we have this painted picture in our brains of how killer looks or how a killer acts. Campbell just seemed like your ordinary run of the mill lad.' While there's no accurate way to spot a killer in our midst, Kenny highlights research that shows that many killers do share similar experiences of disruption, with many suffering from abandonment and attachment issues. Though this is more of an exercise in hindsight than prevention, unfortunately.

Often when children kill, we look for some outside force to blame, as it seems so inexplicable. When John Venables and Robert Thompson killed James Bulger in 1993, the press was quick to lay the blame at so-called 'video nasties'. Twenty-seven years later the finger of blame is now being pointed towards video games, to explain these violent impulses in children. 

Kids Who Kill: Evil Up Close looks at Campbell's fascination with one particularly dark video game called Slender Man, based on a chilling internet meme. It's a perennial debate but how far can we blame violent films and video games when a child kills? Kenny reflects on the development of gaming and how video games have become a lot more violent and immersive in recent years, but she is categorical that they do not create killers. 

There is usually some kind of morality around even killing bizarrely

'Let's say you have the dark triad traits of Machiavellianism, psychopathy and narcissistic, then you will definitely be looking for things that you enjoy. And that's going to be horrible things to view online, it's going to be games that are super violent and it's going to be porn that's really really aggressive and hostile and involving a lot of masochism and sadism. 

It's a sort of confirmation bias, not cause and effect. If you are disturbed you seek out disturbing things. Watching them will not turn you into a killer.

'People who torture and commit horrible murders are going to have in their history, games that are really violent and also porn that is really distasteful. 

'So, we can't say that these kinds of games are linked to violent behaviour, and it would be an awful injustice to do so because some of the most peaceful human beings play very violent games, so it just doesn't kind of tally.'

It is Campbell's victim, a defenceless six-year-old girl, snatched from her bed in the middle of the night that raises his crime to a whole different level of horror. Kenny explains from a psychological perspective why killing a child is so aberrant, especially when it is done by another child:

'There is usually some kind of morality around even killing bizarrely, and that tends to be: you don't harm children or animals. These are the two areas where we see a vulnerability, innocence and a complete right to life. So, when somebody can cross that bridge to traumatize and terrorize and torture a child, that's something that even a hardened murderer would struggle to conceptualize. That's just how far outside of normal the paradigm that behaviour is.' 

His behaviour after the murder compounds the evil that he did. Although the evidence against him was incontrovertible, with forensics putting him at the scene of the crime and CCTV capturing his movements on the night of the murder - he pleaded not guilty. This meant that Alesha McPhail’s family had to go through the ordeal of a trial and to face the excruciating details of her murder. The trial is discussed in the show and Campbell's behaviour in court is absolutely shocking. Kenny has an unsettling take on Campbell’s motivations.

'A typical, well-balanced compassionate person will look at this with their own vision, that sense of how anybody could want to perpetuate even more harm. If you're somebody who firstly enjoys your 'work', and definitely Aaron enjoyed what he did. Secondly, gets a stage, so an opportunity to control people. And thirdly to some degree, to cause further pain. Well, if that's your mindset, you can see why he went ahead to put Alesha's loved ones into this painful situation.'

Campbell is a classic example of a psychopath and bearing this in mind his behaviour at the trial is completely logical. Kenny explains what makes psychopaths like Campbell tick.

'The problem with anybody who's got narcissistic or psychopathic kind of traits is their arrogance. They're not really concerned about the way that people are meant to play by the rules and they're certainly not concerned about the impact that they have on people's feelings because they don't necessarily have a spectrum of the feelings that anybody else identifies with, but what you could say is that what they do enjoy is being the centre of attention and of being superior.’

Campbell is one of those killers who's probably going to be very hard to rehabilitate

Campbell was found guilty and sentenced to twenty-seven years in jail. Once again displaying his narcissistic tendencies he contested the sentence which was reduced to twenty-four years on appeal. Even with a twenty-year sentence when he does eventually leave prison he will be in his mid-fifties. He will still represent a real threat to society. What can society do with killers like Campbell? 

Kenny is supportive of rehabilitation for killers in general.

‘We get a lot of negativity in the UK about the attempt to rehabilitate killers. I feel it's probably a much better system because it suggests that even in the darkest times, there’s still a potential for change and growth and hope. And I think that's where a civilized society wins.'

Even though she is a strong advocate for rehabilitation with someone like Campbell, rehabilitation might be too difficult. But what is it about him as opposed to other killers that makes him so dangerous?

'If I were to look at other people who were involved in the show, I think they hopefully would get released. If you can get children through a process, grow them, educate them, offer them compassion about who they are and what they've done and help them form an identity within society when they go out they can become citizens who do good.

'I think something like Campbell is one of those killers who's probably going to be very hard to rehabilitate because it was the calculation and the enjoyment. When you've got a sexual predator who not only has a predilection for little girls he has a predilection for sadistic killings, it’s highly unlikely that you could ever resolve that. It’s almost incompatible with being free and living as part of a society'