The fascination with murder

The Means Report

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WJBF) – This week The Means Report takes on a rather grim topic, but it is a topic that apparently interests a lot of people. It is murder, homicide cases, investigations, serial killers. There’s a fascination with that. Look at your TV guide and tell me I’m wrong. So many of the shows are based on that. We have an expert here in town who has been examining homicide trends and people’s fascination with this topic, mass shootings and has written her second book on the subject. It’s called “The Murder Book: Understanding Homicide Today”. And the author is Dr. Kim Davies. Dr. Davies, no stranger to people in these parts. She’s also the dean of Pamplin College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at Augusta University.

Brad Means: Dr. Davies I’m glad you’re back with us now. Congratulations on this new book.

Dr. Kim Davies: Thank you so much, and thanks for having me.

Brad Means: Dr. Davies, I guess technically this is a textbook, but it sounds also like a book we should take home and read. What do you think?

Dr. Kim Davies: Yeah, I know that a number of people have bought it last time it was out. We ordered another edition, it was sold at local bookstores. It may be again, we’ll have to see. It’s available on Amazon. It’s a textbook that I think people would pick up and read, unlike an algebra or chemistry textbook.

Brad Means: You know, your focus has long been on homicide and violence, why did you choose that path? Is this something that’s always fascinated you?

Dr. Kim Davies: Yeah, in some ways yes, in other ways no. If I really think back to what I wrote about in high school, I wanted to write about Interpol and my teachers didn’t let me, so there was something interesting to me there, but really it was in college that I became most interested in murder. I had a really good advisor who studied homicide and she had access to databases. I was already studying violence against women. So I kind of made the leap to homicide from violence against women, which again is violence still.

Brad Means: What kind of crimes that fit that description were in the headlines back in those early days for you?

Dr. Kim Davies: Well, I was in college back in the nineties and homicide was at an all time high. So we were seeing so much about homicide, so much about violence linked to crack cocaine at that point, it was on the news all of the time. It was huge news, kind of like we see in the news about the spikes lately. The spikes lately are worrying, but it’s nothing like the violence we had in the nineties.

Brad Means: Yeah, you think back to some of the cases that have grabbed the headlines going back two and a half decades ago to the JonBenét Ramsey case, most recently the Gabby Petito case and you’re right. People are interested, they’re all over the headlines. Television shows and movies are made about these issues. What makes audiences in your opinion drawn to this? Why do they want to watch and learn?

Dr. Kim Davies: You know, I get asked this question a lot and I ask my students this question. I think part of it is people wanna figure out the answer. They wanna figure out how could somebody do something like this? It just seems so foreign to so many of us. And some of it’s driven by the media. Of course the media is driven by what we’re interested in. But some of the programming we watch is a who done it, trying to figure out, we wanna be the clever ones who figure it out sometimes I think, but it’s just pretty horrific, and I think we’re just dumbfounded that people could do it oftentimes.

Brad Means: This is something that’s never gonna go away. Is it as a society, this kind of crime, this level of violence is something we’ll always deal with, don’t you think?

Dr. Kim Davies: I do, I think we have seen decreases and increases, but I can’t imagine a society without murder, which is really sad. Most every society across the country, across time has had some murder. Although the levels vary.

Brad Means: You know, the shows that I referenced so far during this chat that we’re having these true crime depictions that we see on the small screen and the big screen. What do you think about their level of accuracy? Is it mostly Hollywood or are there times when you watch something and say, oh my goodness, that’s exactly like real life?

Dr. Kim Davies: Well, true crime ones are kind of interesting, ’cause we used to have a lot of fictionalized shows and I’d watch those and say, oh my gosh, they’re not even wearing any protective clothing. And they were at the scene of the crime and they’d often talk and explain exactly what they were doing as if nobody else there knew what they were doing. You know, think about that, you don’t do that. When you do a newscast, you don’t say, now we’re going to go do this with the microphone because everybody there knows what you’re doing. So the fiction ones are definitely problematic. Some of the ones we’re seeing now, maybe this is why they’re so interesting, do seem to try to get to some of the detail of the reality. Although friends of mine or colleagues of mine that I know who are detectives or have been in the FBI, do talk about how much longer everything takes than you ever realized by watching any true crime shows, it just takes forever to get back tests, to figure out what’s going on. So that’s one of the things they often point out. And sometimes the difficulty with which the detectives have, the emotion with which they deal with it. Sometimes we don’t realize how much it affects them by what we watch on television. Sometimes they’re doing that with some of the true crime more, but not always.

Brad Means: You know, you take a look at true crime podcasts that are everywhere these days. And I have to ask you how the producers of these podcasts differentiate or separate the fact that they’re trying to draw an audience in, right, they’re trying to entertain people, but we would hope that they’re also trying to be respectful of the subject matter and the emotion, as you mentioned, that’s involved with it and present it in a compassionate way. Do you think that for the most part, the people who present these things to us are doing that, or would you like to see more compassion, a better presentation?

Dr. Kim Davies: I think maybe they’re getting better at it. I think earlier on some of them, it varies by show, but I think some of them have thought about it more and have had people point out things, but I think that’s been a worry all along. Early, when I was first teaching my class on sociology of murder, family members of a murdered young woman were staying here in town at a hotel. And the hotel was hosting a murder night where they were gonna discover who did a murder. And that seems like a fun thing to most people, but this family was really upset by that because it’s trivializing what happened to their daughter. So think about how often we see depictions of murder in everything. There’s the Clue game, there’s nursery rhymes, there’s podcasts, everywhere in our society, there’s murder. And if you’ve had somebody in your family who’s been murdered or murdered somebody, you just might see it in a different way. And I don’t think we’re always thinking about that, but I think your questions are fantastic. I think we do have to stop and think about how this can affect the people who have dealt with this more personally.

Brad Means: Do your students respond well when you say to them, what you just said to me, because young people are so easily distracted, young people demand to be entertained, and I mean that in the kindest way, but when you say, hey folks, why don’t you stop a beat and think about the gravity of these cases that we’re learning about, do they listen?

Dr. Kim Davies: They do, one of the things I always point out to them. I’ve told them, I’ve taught this class, I don’t know, at least probably eight, nine times, maybe more than that. And I’ve never had a class where somebody hasn’t had a family member who was murdered. And I tell them that, I don’t tell them who it was, but I say that always happens. So there’s bound to be somebody in this class who’s had somebody in their family who somebody else murdered, so think about that. We also do an exercise very early on in the class where we collect something or make chalk marks to note how much murders happen to really get them to think about how much there really is. It’s to try to get a real sense of just how much is going on and how many people are likely affected. And often we do have students in the class who will speak about their experiences. And I almost always have somebody come to class and share their own experiences as well. All that impacts them.

Brad Means: That’s scary, that so many people, that it’s so easy to find a connection to that kind of crime right there in your classrooms consistently over the years. We’re talking to Dr. Kim Davies and her brand new book. When we come back more questions about homicide and the trends what we’re seeing in our country going forward, thanks to her great research on the “Means Report”.

Part 2
And we welcome you back to “The Means Report” talking to Dr. Kim Davies, dean of the Pamplin College at Augusta University, talking about her new book, “The Murder Book: Understanding Homicide Today”. Dr. Davies, I wanna ask you about the shift if you will, and if there has been a shift, from the focus, as far as the true crime things that we see on television, that we read about or listen to on our podcasts, going from serial killers, like it was a couple of decades ago, more to mass murder, school shootings, mall shootings, has the audience’s fascination kind of shifted to those last few things I mentioned?

Dr. Kim Davies: Yeah, I think so. I’ve seen that in my classroom when I first started teaching sociology of murder, maybe back in 98 or so, students were fascinated with serial killers, that seemed to be the focus, seemed to be what most of the shows were on television, the true crime stuff, and now it’s more about mass killers, but we’ve also seen in data, serial killing has decreased and we see more mass murder. So it kind of makes sense if you think about the students who I’m seeing these days, the 18 to 22 year olds plus, they grew up doing drills in their schools. They grew up always with the idea that a mass shooting could happen. It’s actually, it’s scary to think about, that’s been their lives.

Brad Means: You know, Dr. Davies, I was having a phone conversation with my oldest son on the way to do this interview with you today. And it was right after the headlines of the Oxford, Michigan, a young man who had saved his school from a school shooting, potentially, the headlines in the news just coming out as we speak. But he said, dad, there wasn’t a day that went by that people in my peer group didn’t think about saving their school from a school shooting, being that hero who stepped up and put an end to it, that disturbed me, but that is what kids think about, isn’t it?

Dr. Kim Davies: Yeah, different than I grew up in Ohio, we thought about tornado drills, it’s just so different.

Brad Means: It’s just unbelievable, the frame of reference that our young people have had to grow up with. I know you’ve taken a hard look at homicide trends in the U.S., Dr. Davies in your book, and in other aspects of your professional life, what have you found about the kind of people who murder others? Is there a common thread, maybe even just one commonality that runs through all murderers?

Dr. Kim Davies: No, that’s part of the difficulty. There are different types of murderers. One of the things I point out in the book and with my students is if we looked at domestic violence, if we looked at robbery, homicide, we could look at one of the chapters, some people really don’t like to read is the chapter about killing children, confrontational homicide, which that’s a really common one, confrontational, that’s when two people basically argue over something and it escalates until somebody does a fatal blow. They end up fighting and somebody either grabs a gun or grabs some kind of weapon, whether it’s meant to be a weapon or not, and kills the other. So there’s not some psychological thing, there’s not some biological thing that they all have in common, other than that they’ve killed somebody else.

Brad Means: Do you have any encouraging news about the murder rate going down potentially, did the pandemic help or hurt the murder rate?

Dr. Kim Davies: If I were being my usual sarcastic self, I would say yes, because it did help and it did hurt. It depended on where you are. I’m doing some research on that and I’ve been reading some research on that. We’re gonna have to figure it out better once we know the types of homicide, but in some places it did go up, in some places it went down. Certainly lots of crime rates went down because stores weren’t open, some places weren’t open to burglarize or rob. But in some places, yes, homicide did go up and we’re trying to figure out why, was it domestic violence that led it to go up? Was it that people were cramped together in houses and irritating each other? Was it that we weren’t locking some people up in jail that we usually lock up before things escalated? Was it that emergency rooms were too full to save people? We don’t know yet.

Brad Means: What is your research shown you about warning signs that someone could have extremely violent tendencies? Anything we might spot heck in our own home or in the workplace, to say, okay, this could turn into something? I’ve asked domestic violence experts the same questions, and they said, sure, there are red flags. How about for murderers?

Dr. Kim Davies: There are, some of the same things for domestic violence work for domestic violence homicide. And if we think about things like mass murder, there are some reports that the FBI has done where they’ve looked at some of the cases of mass murderers. And they find that something like, and this is off the top of my head, but something like 68, 70% have said something that could have indicated they were gonna do something. So if somebody does say something, take it seriously. Think about jokes people make, and if they’re acting different, if they haven’t had weapons and they go purchase a weapon, if they’re angry, something’s going on at work, those things, we need to help people with their mental health, so let’s help them if those things seem to be going on. But definitely if somebody in your family says they’re gonna do something like that, intervene.

Brad Means: How do you intervene, do you call the police on them? Do you take them to a medical professional, what do you do?

Dr. Kim Davies: I haven’t seen research. What I would do in my own situation, so this isn’t me giving advice to everybody, but I’d probably try to get some mental health help and ask those experts.

Brad Means: All right, so let’s go back to trends, crime trends, murder trends. Is there a part of the country we could all move to that’s safe and worry-free, a town or a region?

Dr. Kim Davies: In the United States, no, there’s no place that’s safe. I will tell you that the murder rate and assault rate, it’s higher here in the south. That’s one of the things that I’ve focused on since I moved down here is, kind of figuring out what’s going on there. Is it the history of the south, is it the heat? Some say, it’s this idea that we don’t back down here where people back down in other places. So that’s something to think about. Across the United States, I mean, across the world, there are some places that are safer than others. Some of that’s weapons, but some of that’s, again, culture. Monte Carlo weirdly often has a murder rate of zero. If I’m honest, I wonder if that’s because they moved the murders, it’s such a place that keeps things so clean, kind of like Disney, but I don’t really know.

Brad Means: Do you think the criminal justice system is doing enough? I’m not trying to get you to take any sort of political stance here, but could we do more as a society to deter these would be violent offenders?

Dr. Kim Davies: Well, I don’t think the criminal justice system alone should be responsible for preventing murder. If we think about it, it’s all of us. And school systems got a lot on them, but it’s what we teach our kids, so it’s the school system. it’s parents, it’s all of us in society teaching kids how to deal with their emotions, teaching us how to handle things, especially young boys. We don’t let boys often have emotions and they need to learn the difference between sad and angry and what you do about it when you’re sad and when you’re angry and it’s not go hit people, it’s not to, we don’t want anybody being violent towards themselves, but we don’t want them being violent towards others either. We have to help them learn how to deal with their anger and understand when they’re sad and it’s not anger.

Brad Means: If I can stay on warning signs, just for one more question, is what we’ve heard about people who are mean to animals way one day be mean to people, is that accurate?

Dr. Kim Davies: Well, there’s something called the Macdonald triad that says that if people, especially men, can be wet the bed, fire starters, and injure animals, that that’s common in the history of some people who do violence. They have found some research that say that’s true, but they’ve also found those things in people haven’t ever done crime, or haven’t done murder, right? So that’s a really, the Macdonald triad doesn’t hold up, but I would say if people do particularly harmful things to animals, I’d say that’s a problem that shows they’re not taking the sentient being seriously there, there’s something there, you wanna ask if they’re torturing, I’d say that’s a problem, and psychology would agree.

Brad Means: Can some violent offenders, and I’m talking about murderers, people who are convicted of the crime, be rehabilitated?

Dr. Kim Davies: Absolutely, because a lot of times it’s you parked your car too close to me, I use that example all the time, but you and I get into a fight over something and one of us is just having a really bad day, actually, maybe we both are, and one of us doesn’t back down and I push you, and there are a lot of equipment in the room you’re in, you fall over, you hit your head, and I’m a murderer. I can be taught not to, get my violence under control, and don’t do that again. If it’s somebody who plans a murder and goes killing people like serial killers, yeah, probably not, but other people who murder in a situation where it just kind of escalates like that, yeah. And then there are people who’ve murdered, gotten out of prison, and never done anything else again.

Brad Means: Do you still take your students to see autopsies and does that make some of them drop out?

Dr. Kim Davies: No, I haven’t, I actually haven’t done that for a really long time, that was back in Ohio when I knew that coroner very well. And during that time that would make them really think about it. But I have had students change their minds about what they’re gonna study, when we really focus on this. But sometimes it’s just to focus a little differently, to go into working with a domestic violence shelter rather than being a police detective, because they decided where it is they wanna focus their help.

Brad Means: Dr. Davies, my last question is, what should we be watching or reading? What’s good out there right now, if this genre is your thing?

Dr. Kim Davies: I should pick something on your channel, but I wasn’t prepared to do that. I tend to watch British procedurals. I like a lot of those because their people on those shows tend to wear the correct outfits when they go and do the crime scene investigation. And a lot of times they’re pretty cerebral, so I like those.

Brad Means: Is “Dexter” good?

Dr. Kim Davies: I am watching, I just watched last night, the new “Dexter”, yeah, I like that show. It doesn’t mean everybody will, but I’m curious to see where it’s gonna go.

Brad Means: Me too, I don’t know why I keep getting drawn back to that show, but it draws you back. Dr. Davies, thank you for the research that you do and for the way that you share it, not just with your students, but with this community. We really appreciate your expertise. You’ve been very enlightening today.

Dr. Kim Davies: Thank you. I really appreciate you spending the time with me.

Brad Means: Anytime. Dr. Kim Davies from Augusta University, our special guest today.

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The Means Report first aired in January of 2009 offering coverage that you cannot get from a daily newscast. Forget about quick soundbytes -- we deliver an in-depth perspective on the biggest stories. If they are making news on the local or national level, you will find them on the set of The Means Report. Hosted by WJBF NewsChannel 6 anchor, Brad Means, The Means Report covers the topics impacting your life, your town, your state, and your future.