Serial Murder: Definition, Cases & Statistics

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  • 0:03 Defining Serial Murder
  • 1:31 Characteristics & Motives
  • 3:39 Serial Murder Statistic
  • 4:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Wendy Faircloth

Wendy has taught all subjects of high school social studies and English and has a master's degree in Secondary Education.

Serial murder captures imaginations with its sheer terror. How can one person kill a number of other people in cold blood? In this lesson, you'll learn about what defines serial murder, some characteristics of serial murderers, and some major cases.

Defining Serial Murder

Gainesville, Florida, home of the University of Florida, is a well-known college town, with streets lined with popular college bars and fraternity and sorority houses. By mid-August, the town is overflowing with new and returning students. In August 1990, the excitement of a new semester came to a terrifying halt. Two students, Sonja Larson and Christina Powell, were murdered in their apartment. The next day, student Christa Hoyt was killed in her apartment. All three young women were posed in sexually provocative positions.

Fear gripped the university community, paralyzing the bustling campus. Terrified parents asked students to come home. Students who stayed in Gainesville huddled together in dorms or apartments, afraid to sleep alone. In spite of these precautions, the killer struck twice more, murdering Tracy Paules and her roommate Manuel 'Manny' Taboada, after breaking into the apartment they shared.

Police eventually arrested drifter Danny Rolling for the crimes. Rolling was convicted and eventually executed in 2006. Rolling's acts are an example of serial murder. Law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI, have worked on a definition of serial murder, distinguishing it from mass murder, in which a number of murders occur in one incident (such as the movie theater slaying in Colorado in 2012). A serial murder consists of at least two to three murders which take place during separate incidents and are committed by the same offender.

Characteristics and Motives

Serial killing, while defined recently by law enforcement, is not a new phenomenon. The infamous Jack the Ripper killed at least five prostitutes in London in the 1800s. Serial killers have been active throughout the world for much of history. However, the science of criminal justice has developed in recent years, identifying some traits that serial murderers have in common and some approaches to catching and convicting these extremely dangerous criminals.

There's a Hollywood stereotype of the serial killer as a relatively young, white, male loner, a criminal genius at avoiding capture, who travels widely, killing in a sexually perverted manner and eluding authorities. While some serial killers fit this profile, it does not apply to all. Serial killers can be either male or female (although males are far more prevalent) and any race. Serial killers' motives also vary widely. Some kill based on their own rage, while others find killing to be a sheer power thrill. Some are sexually motivated, and others may have a hatred of a certain group.

It's easy to make the assumption that serial killers must be insane. However, few serial killers fit the legal definition of insanity, a very narrow definition stating that at the time of the crime, the offender could not understand his actions were wrong. Most serial killers do not fit the legal definition of insanity because they know their actions are wrong - they just do not care.

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