Skip to main content

Abused Victims, Future Criminals?

Crime+Investigation brand logo

WhenLyle and Erik Menendez were put on trial for gunning down their own parents in cold blood, it looked at first like a clear-cut case of two spoilt, entitled, pathologically greedy brothers who committed an unthinkable crime just to get their hands on the family coffers. Indeed, that narrative is what got them locked away for good.

A rage built up after years of being physically and sexually abused by their father.

And yet, there had been a sudden, sensational twist during their legal battles, when the brothers claimed the murders were actually an expression of rage. A rage built up after years of being physically and sexually abused by their father.

The question of whether the Menendez brothers really were abused, or whether they made the story up in a desperate ditch effort to justify blasting their parents to death, has been debated by journalists and legal experts ever since. Certainly, the brothers have maintained their version of events in interviews, giving graphic accounts of what their father allegedly did to them. Lyle Menendez has even pointed out that the method of their murders – crude, brazen and brutal – is evidence that it wasn’t some cunning plan to make money.

“This was the opposite of a cold-blooded killing,” he said, citing “the outrage, the anger, the betrayal” that caused them to snap on that fateful night. One man who certainly believed in the brothers’ story during the investigation was Stuart Hart, a child psychologist who took the stand to state his support for what Erik and Lyle had alleged, and regarded the killings of their parentsas the bloody result of abnormal parenting.

Whatever you think of the Menendez case, it does point to a larger, troubling question: is there a correlation between childhood abuse and future criminality? It’s a controversial question, provoking immediate, instinctive responses in our minds. But studies have also been conducted, delving into this thorny thicket.

One such paper, published in the US in 2006, had the bluntly direct title, “Does Child Abuse Cause Crime?” Authors Erdal Tekin and Janet Currie used data gathered in a major study of adolescent health in the United States to chart the possible effects of a traumatic childhood on later transgressions. Their paper mentioned anecdotal evidence from the world of crime, recalling that – for example – the Washington sniper John Muhammad had been “severely beaten as a child by several relatives, including an uncle who beat another child to death”. The statistics seemed to bear out the anecdotes, with the authors finding that “maltreatment approximately doubles the probability of engaging in many types of crime”, with sexual abuse having the most negative impact. The paper even found that to be the case with twins where one sibling was abused and the other was not.

To many, it stands to reason that childhood abuse can put an individual on the path to violence – both physical and sexual – later in life. Such early traumas can wreck someone’s sense of morality, obliterate their self-esteem, warp their sexuality, cause withdrawal from society, and result in long-lasting loneliness, anxiety, fear and desperation. Dr. James Garbarino, a psychologist who works with violent inmates, has described them as “untreated traumatized children, inhabiting the bodies of often very scary men.”

It’s well known that many serial killers, as well as lower-grade criminals, had turbulent and ruinous childhoods. US serial killer Carroll Edward Cole, who was executed in 1985, had been beaten by his mother and forced to watch her have sex with men, and grew up with a seething hate for “loose women”. Another American serial killer, Michael Bruce Ross, executed in 2005, had been repeatedly beaten by his mother and allegedly molested by an uncle. Such stories are plentiful in the annals of criminality.

And there are plenty more studies too, such as one conducted in Australia in 2012, which looked at thousands of child sexual abuse victims over the course of many decades, and found that children subjected to such abuse are five times more likely to become criminals.

There are dissenting voices, however. Writing in Psychology Today, author and psychologist Stanton E. Samenow pointed out the issue of evasion and excuses among criminals, saying: “Offenders are often untruthful. After the fact, especially when being held accountable, they say whatever they believe will gain them a sympathetic ear and thereby minimize unpalatable consequences. They may claim they were abused when it never occurred.”

This kind of dishonesty – which many believe the Menendez brothers are guilty of – can skew the statistics on this subject. On top of that, some studies actually seem to disprove any correlation. One from 2003, called “The Effect of Childhood Maltreatment on Adult Criminality”, concluded that both physical and sexual abuse did not make a significant impact on future criminal behaviour.

Ultimately, there is no black and white, yes/no answer here. Trauma affects different children in different ways, with very different outcomes that cannot be comfortably predicted, presenting a ceaseless challenge to psychologists, and dilemmas for jurors presiding over cases like the Menendez murders.