Q&A With Dr. Mary Ellen O'Toole, Former FBI Profiler, on Amanda Knox and Why Being Pretty and Female Matters in a Murder Trial


Q&A With Dr. Mary Ellen O'Toole, Former FBI Profiler, on Amanda Knox and Why Being Pretty and Female Matters in a Murder Trial

  • Q&A With Dr. Mary Ellen O'Toole, Former FBI Profiler, on Amanda Knox and Why Being Pretty and Female Matters in a Murder Trial

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    Dr. Mary Ellen O'Toole spent 14 years of her 28-year career with the FBI getting inside the heads of criminals through her work as a profiler. Her book Dangerous Instincts: How Gut Feelings Betray Us examines how appearances, instincts and preconceived notions can get in the way of finding the truth.

    She tells Seattle Weekly that the murder trial of Amanda Knox is a case in point of this phenomenon.

    How did you come to be interested in the Amanda Knox case?

    Dr. Mary Ellen O'Toole
    It was getting a lot of media attention. I worked on the Natalee Holloway case, had always kept an eye on cases like this because they are very difficult for the people involved. At the time, it was shortly after I had retired and started to write the book. The book is about decision-making and reading criminals and reading people the right way and the wrong way.

    People who go overseas encounter a whole new set of issues. You don't realize that you're living with their laws and their prosecutors.

    How important is gender and attractiveness in murder cases?

    There's no study done on that, so we can't say definitively. I would say it comes into play along with other variables--it's not just gender.

    When you start to factor in other things similar to what we saw with Casey Anthony, you have a very pretty woman on trial and the accusations are particularly heinous. Now, being an attractive woman, that takes the combination of factors to a whole different level. So when you are talking about a case involving homicide and there are allegations of sexual deviancy, and it occurs in an areas of world with very little crime and they're not used to it, if you don't have any point of reference, you can see how people's imaginations might run wild.

    Do you feel gender and attractiveness was even more important in the Knox case than one might expect?

    I would say probably. She was given all these nicknames and the case as presented is a particularly heinous sexual homicide, and when you start saying sexual in front of homicide it makes more extreme.

    Is it more extreme because she's a pretty, young woman?

    I would say it could be. There's nothing you can say absolutely in human behavior.

    Here's my experience, in the U.S. and in places with less crimes of violence, the general public still tends to look at violent crime and they start to conjure up ideas in their head of what the killer might look like. It has to look like Hannibal Lecter or The Joker in The Dark Knight--a straggly-haired stranger that looks and smells funny.

    Now enter into the courtroom a handsome young man or beautiful young woman--people have a hard time reconciling how someone who looks so normal might be capable of committing such a heinous act.

    Is this more the case in rural or foreign places than in the United States?

    Not necessarily.

    How often do you read in newspapers that they went to interview the neighbor of the serial killer and the neighbor always says "I'm so shocked. He was so nice. I never would have expected that"?

    The way we assess people for violence is pretty superficial. We look at what they look like, which has nothing to do with whether that person could act out violence.

    There are preconceived ideas that most of have about who can commit a homicide, particularly a homicide that involves sexual deviancy. People conjure up ideas of what that person might look like.

    The fact is there are no physical outward signs to determine who is a murderer.

    This week we've heard very colorful language used to describe Knox by lawyers: She's a "she devil," she's a "spell-casting witch," she's "Jessica Rabbit." Why have we heard all these terms about Knox, but not about her male co-defendant Raffaele Sollecito?

    It seems extremely prejudicial. Those terms have no legal meaning and no behavioral meaning. You can't go to any textbook and find out how to interview an "evil" person, or how to prosecute an "evil" person. You can find out how to interview or prosecute a psychopath. But that's a scientific term.

    I'm not sure why those terms are being used. And I'm not sure it why they would be used against her and not her male co-defendant.

    Would that fly in the United States?

    No. I don't think it would. I'm not a lawyer. But I cannot imagine the circumstances where that kind of language would be allowed. It's extremely prejudicial.

    Is the Knox case and the attention that it's generating helping to dispel any of these biases?

    No. I would expect that once this case is adjudicated, however it is decided, and it's no longer in the limelight, there will be much less focus on it and on her. Once it's adjudicated, it will die down. The OJ case--it died down; Menendez brothers--it died down; Casey Anthony--it died down.

    Where else do you see these kinds of biases?

    I do a lot of teaching and a lot of lecturing. And right before I leave the classroom, I'll often hear "Those were great cases! Those people, what monsters!" And I'm like, "Dude, I just explained that words like 'monster' have no place here."

    Otoole book01.jpg
    I don't know why people have such a hard time realizing that murderers can't be put in nice little boxes.

    Pretty people can commit murders, handsome people can commit murders, ugly people can commit murders. Its not what's on the outside that counts, it's what's on the inside.

    Dr. Mary Ellen O'Toole is a retired FBI agent and profiler as well as a current educator. Get her book Dangerous Instincts: How Gut Feelings Betray Us here.

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