Importance of Motive in Criminal Investigation
Criminal justice usually does not deal with motivations of the crime, but only the crime. The judge does not ask why the crime was committed, but only whether the crime was committed. The question of motivation related to ‘why’ a particular crime was committed (Steinberg, n.d). Although, it does not make much of a difference in courts of justice, but for criminal investigations, it does. Particularly, in case of homicide, the investigator does seem to form hypotheses about various people around the victim regarding the possible motives for which those people may have committed the crime. Even though, this does not prove anything, but it does give them a lead to follow. However, some may disagree with the idea of presuming motives leading to any certainty or evidences.
Therefore, the problem under consideration is about the role and importance of taking motives into consideration while doing criminal investigations for homicides. The question is, whether motives play an important role or they just negatively impact the investigations? In this paper, the aforementioned question is analyzed. It is noticed that motives are of great importance in understanding what might have happened in the past that could have led to the criminal act. In this regard, crime scene profiling and victimology, both are often about analyzing and predicting the criminal’s personality and motives. However, it is also understandable that they do often mislead and make the investigation complex.
First of all, let us understand homicide and motives. Homicide is basically about taking a human’s life lawfully or unlawfully. Unlawfully it can be called a murder. However, lawfully, it is usually accidental or in defense or as a result of jury’s decision for death sentencing (Megargee, 1982). But there are many other subcategories of homicide too. Similarly, motives are the reason why a person acts or avoids acting in a particular way. In terms of crime, usually it is understand as something that leads to mens rea i.e., intention of crime which leads a person to actus reus, i.e., executing the action or crime (Steinberg, n.d). Thus, it should be clear here that there is a distinction made in criminology about motives and intent. Intention basically means the state of mind that may lead to the decision of a crime whereas motives are one step behind as they are the cause that leads to such state of mind (“Motive,” n.d). The motives for crimes are usually understood in two ways, universal and specific. In other words there are some crimes for which motives are universal while for some they are very contextual and specific (Osterburg & Ward, 2010).
In the investigation of Homicidal crime, motives become of great importance. It can either lead you to the murderer or at least bring about a cogent argument for conviction. Osterburg and Ward (2010) wrote in detail about both the aforementioned factors. They argue that unlike crimes of robbery, rape and burglary etc, which have more of a universal motive, the motives play a crucial role in reaching the criminal in homicide and other such cases. The reason for that is that they have particular motives, which cannot be universalized. Hence, at times, it helps focus on a particular suspect and find deductive evidence to prove that s/he is guilty. However, in some situations when it cannot bring the deductive evidence, it still puts energy in the case in making a cogent argument in front of jury (Osterburg & Ward, 2010). That means that the nature of crime gives a certain degree of importance to the crime. And since, homicide is such a crime, where motive matters a lot, so it gets noticed significantly in such crime’s investigations too.
Motives have a psychological role to play. They work on the minds of investigators such that it cements their hypothesis towards a particular suspect. Ask and Granhag (2005) analyze the role inclusion or exclusion of motives play in crime investigation. Their analysis shows two very important results, one of which has a deteriorating effect on importance of motive while the other puts positive mark on it. Their study shows that given the motivations, investigators find it easy to put aside the inconsistencies in the data collected and hypothesize the culprit directly. The inclusion of motives tends to make the investigators lesser sensitive and conscious of the alternative interpretations or possibilities.
However, on the other hand, if one removes the motivations, and present them with a possibility that there may be some other perpetrator; they are more likely to take into account the inconsistencies (Ask & Granhag, 2005). As an example, if a suspect is receiving a lot of money from the deceased insurance, it would strengthen investigators belief that this particular suspect is likely to be involved in the homicide (“Motive” n.d). Therefore, it could be said that motives may or may not be legally very important, but psychologically they influence the minds of investigators a lot for reaching a hypothesis or strengthening the hypothesis.
Crime profiling often involves understanding the motives of crime and that leads to the suspect. However, does that profiling tells an investigator about motives and hence, the culprit? CR Bartol and AM Bartol (2012) think it does. They argue that crime scene profiling basically involves collecting data from the crime scene like fingerprints, location, time and so on. They explain that it started in early 1900s in America. However, it was officially initiated by FBI and other departments in 1970s. From crime scene profiling much can be understood about the crime. So much so that it is argued that the personality and motives of the criminal can be understood. And it is further assumed that if personality and motives can be understood, using inductive or sometimes deductive analysis, one can reach to the criminal (Bartol & Bartol, 2012). Therefore, crime scene profiling is important and within that, getting hold of the motivations behind the crime is a significant factor.
It should be noted that criminal behavior is not much different than normal behavior patterns. Generally it is thought that criminals carry particular personality traits. However, Douglas et al. (2006) argue that just like any behavior is a response of inner and outer stress, so is criminal behavior. They physical needs, social pressure, cultural emphasis, all add up to formulate behavior of people, criminals and non-criminals, both. Thus, the idea that criminals think different and act different does not help in criminal investigation. Therefore, judging the motivations with normal frame of mind and intuitiveness is important. In fact, Douglas et al. (2006) say determining motive is a key step in reaching a possible suspect.
That is why investigators often look at victim’s history thoroughly because that brings out the possible motives for the homicide. Browsing the victim’s complete history is essential. Douglas et al. (2006) argue that victimology is all about studying victim’s history and through that hypothesizing the possible motive for which the crime might have been done. The motives can be more than one, which may add to the complexity of the case. However, investigators in such cases focus on predominant motive. And once the motive is obtained, figuring out the suspect and proving him or her guilty becomes easy (Douglas et al., 2006). Especially in case of homicides, as Douglas et al. (2006) argue, victimology is all an investigator needs for getting hold of the criminal.
However, not all homicidal crimes have specific motives behind them. It has been argued and shown through studies that there are many motiveless homicides too. Hence, the question is if crime profiling and understanding victim’s history is significantly about ‘motives,’ then how do investigators resolve motiveless homicides. Thus, first of all, it is important to understand what kind of a homicide could be motiveless. Burgess et al. (1986) did a research and concluded that most of the motiveless crimes are related to sexual assault. The reason why there is no apparent motive behind such murders is that the criminals are often sexually abused as children or teenagers and hence, the fantasies are built in the back of their minds for quite a long time (Burgess et al., 1986). Hence, two things can be inferred from this: first, that motiveless crimes are mostly about sexual abuse and second, that an absolute majority of such crimes is motiveless apparently because the poison starts developing at a very early age because of being a victim of sexual abuse themselves.
However, a downside of the putting ultra focus on motivation is that it misleads and does not help in solving the crime. Copson (1995) study shows that the predictions made by investigators based on the crime scene profiling were not significantly helpful in solving the case. Since a major inference from the profiling used to be about understanding the personality and motives, so often the motives are misunderstood and hence, the investigators are misled. Copson (1995) found out that only 14.1% cases were resolved based on the predictions made by profiling. This is because for solving the case, it is often said that get in the boots of the criminal or think like a criminal (Bartol & Bartol, 2012). But this in theory is quite perfect and touching, though quite impossible in real life. In other words, the idea of putting oneself in the shoes of a criminal and thinking exactly the same way s/he does, is not quite possible. One may do it to some extent, but the extent would remain restricted and hence, a person would have to use approximation or estimations for furthering.
Hence, Keppel and Birnes (2003) argue that profiling being based on investigators own perception of criminal’s personality and motives is often inductive and not necessarily a truth teller. The reason for that is that the investigators own perception is full of his or her biases, prejudices and contexts, hence the conclusions they draw are not necessarily leading towards an answer to who committed homicide. Thus, it appears as a downside to the approach of giving motives too much importance.
However, this does not mean that motives’ prediction has no role to play. In fact, 82.6% of the investigators were found to believe that profiling, which leads to understanding motives, does help in solving the case, whether significantly or not, does not matter (Copson, 1995). This means that understanding motives is although very important in investigations, but it should not get exclusive focus as that may mislead. Similarly, it also implies that motivations should be considered an important part of the investigation and an important tool for resolving the case, but not the only tool.
Similarly, just like in profiling, in victimology too, the idea of finding a suspect by predicting the motivations of crime can be misleading too. When a person studies the life of a victim, people with a relatively bad character around the victim do get stuck in the minds of the investigators as genuine suspects. Whether they have any link to the data obtained from the crime scene or other evidences collected, they still remain in the minds of investigators as possible murderers. Nadler and McDonnell (2011) study show that the investigators often turn the face of whole investigations toward the person with bad character found in the victimology.
They delineate that whether or not that person’s allegedly bad character has any link with action that led to the murder, s/he still becomes suspicious (Nadler & McDonnell, 2011). In most of the cases, the bad personality or actions of an individual have no causal link or are totally irrelevant to the way a crime is committed or a person is killed. But still such a person comes under hard questions and investigations as if he is really the one who has done homicide (Nadler & McDonnell, 2011). Because what is happening here is that a person character is bad so it is assumed that his motivations are bad and extreme too. But this assumption about motivations is seldom true. It very rarely leads to the actual murderer. Hence, like in profiling, in victimology too, taking presumed motivations as ‘The Lead’ in a case can often make the case irresolvable. Thus, too much emphasis on motives can be distractive too in criminal investigations.
In a nutshell, we have analyzed the role of motivations in criminal investigations. It could easily be deduced that motives play a crucial and critical role in furthering any criminal investigation. Especially, homicide, which is mostly, not always, led by some particular motives, hence, knowing those motives, is very important. These motives can be understood through crime scene profiling and victimology both. However, both have their shortcomings and often mislead. Therefore, in investigations, although, motivations should be given importance, but it cannot remain the only tool to catch the culprit as understanding motivations is quite difficult, if not impossible.
However, motivations still remain critical in not only solving a case, but also preventing crimes like homicides. If one knows what causes a crime, those causes can certainly be eliminated to eliminate a crime from happening at all. Thus, understanding motives remain important in one or the other way. However, mechanisms need to be improved and further worked upon as to how the motivations can be understand as closely as possible.
Ask, K., & Granhag, P. A. (2005). Motivational sources of confirmation bias in criminal investigations: The need for cognitive closure. Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling, 2(1), 43-63.
Bartol, C. R., & Bartol, A. M. (2012). Criminal & Behavioral Profiling. SAGE Publications.
Burgess, A. W., Hartman, C. R., Ressler, R. K., Douglas, J. E., & McCormack, A. (1986). Sexual homicide a motivational model. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 1(3), 251-272.
Copson, G. (1995). Coals to Newcastle: A study of offender profiling. Police Research Group.
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