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Serial killers may attack anywhere at any time. However, depending upon whether or not the murderer is organized or disorganized, those two factors can affect location and timing.

The set up, or initial place(s) where the killer(s) first meet their intended victim(s) varies. However, the majority of initial contact locations are areas known for vice activity, such as places frequented by prostitutes and/or drug users and dealers.

Secondary target areas include outdoor locations such as public parks and vehicle parking areas, etc.

A third choice location, but not the most favored, is the victim’s home, either by forced entry or by ruse. Also, indoor public locations such as bus stations, shopping malls, and places of business.

Breaking this down even further, we know from past experience and knowledge, that initial assaults by serial killers tend to most likely occur in outdoor public locations. Again, public parks, etc. The next prime attack location is a victim’s home. And, if the killer knows his victims, his own home may be another choice spot to kill.

Organized Killers

Organized killers are typically of above average to average intelligence. They’re often thought to be attractive. They’re neat and tidy and are often married or living with a partner during the times they committed their crimes. They hold jobs, are typically educated, and are skilled at their profession. They look to be in control. And they often have above average knowledge of police and forensics procedures. They enjoy reading and hearing about their crimes, with a particular affection for seeing their crime scenes in the media. It is not unusual at all  for an organized killer to make contact with the media, or even the police.

Having carefully plan their crimes, organized offenders frequently go the extra mile to prevent leaving evidence behind. Their killings may be premeditated.

Killers in this group are antisocial and often psychopathic—they lack of empathy and other emotions. They’re manipulative of others. The tricky thing when dealing with organized criminals is that they perpetually appear quite normal, and they’ll do their best to use charm to their advantage.

They’re not insane and they definitely know right from wrong, but they lack conscience and feel or show no remorse for the deeds.

Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer, is an example of an organized killer/criminal.

Dr. Katherine Ramsland is a renowned expert on serial killers and she details Rader’s crimes in her book Confession of a Serial Killer: The Untold Story of Denis Rader the BTK Killer. As part of her research, Dr. Ramsland spoke with Rader by telephone once a week for an entire year. Each week, Rader called her from the El Dorado Correctional Facility and the two of them talked for an hour or so. Also as part of her process of delving into Rader’s mind, Dr. Ramsland played chess, by mail, with the killer.

As many of you know, Dr. Ramsland is a regular presenter at the Writers’ Police Academy.

Disorganized Killers

Disorganized killers/criminals typically do not plan their crimes in advance. They quite often leave evidence at the scenes of their crimes, such as fingerprints, footprints, DNA, tire tracks, or blood. They’re also known to simply leave the body as is, making no real attempt to conceal it or to prevent leaving telltale evidence such as semen or saliva. Their crimes are sometimes chaotic.

Disorganized killers tend to be younger in age. They’re unskilled workers who have no problem depersonalizing their victims. They may be mentally ill. They’re often of below average intelligence who lack communication and social skills. Many come from dysfunctional and/or abusive families. They may have been sexually abused by relatives, and they may present with sexual detestation. They’re loners who often travel on foot to commit crimes due to a lack of transportation. These are the neighbors of their victims. They’re often under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol when they commit their crimes.

Jack the Ripper, for example, was a killer who made no effort to conceal the bodies of his victims.

This is the killer who uses a sudden and quick attack to overpower their victims.

Race

White offenders are far more apt (over double) to meet their victims in an outdoor public place (a park or somewhere similar), while African American offenders tend to prefer a less conspicuous location. African American offenders, however, are more prone to choose a meeting place that’s in vice areas (locations where prostitution is known to exist, etc.) than do white offenders.

Location

Serial killers tend to commit murder in public locations. Their next choice is typically the homes of the victims.

For example, in the late 1980s, serial killer Timothy Spencer (the Southside Strangler) raped and killed four women—Debbie Dudly Davis, 35, an account manager, Susan Elizabeth Hellams, 32, a neurosurgeon, and Diane Cho, 15, a high school freshman, and Susan M. Tucker, 44, a federal employee.

Spencer committed those brutal murders while living at a Richmond, Virginia halfway house after his release from a three-year prison sentence for burglary. He killed the first three women on the weekends during times when he had signed out of the facility.

Officials had not yet linked Spencer to the murders, so they granted him a furlough to visit his mother’s home for the Thanksgiving holiday. Susan Tucker’s body was found shortly after the time Spencer returned to and signed in at the halfway house.

Police learned that Spencer entered the women’s homes through windows. Then he raped, sodomized, and choked them to death using ligatures. He’d made the ligatures in such a way that the more the victims struggled, the more they choked.

All four were discovered nude or partly clothed. Their hands were bound, and either rope, belts, or socks were tied around their necks.

Spencer had left no evidence behind other than DNA evidence. At the time DNA testing in criminal cases was new.

Spencer later was also implicated in the murder of lawyer Carolyn Jean Hamm, 32, in Arlington, Virginia. He was also thought to have raped at least eight additional women. However, he was never tried in those cases because he’d already been sentenced to death.

Spencer, by the way, was the first person in the U.S. executed for a conviction based on DNA evidence.

Patricia Cornwell’s first book, Post Mortem, was based on the Spencer murders.

In the spring of 1994, I served as a witness to Spencer’s execution by way of the electric chair. His death was gruesome.

 

Convicted serial killer, Timothy Spencer, the Southside Strangler, appealed his death sentence. He claimed that he was factually innocent, scientists did not adequately perform the DNA testing in his case, and that DNA testing is a flawed science. Were Spencer’s claims wrong? Is DNA testing flawed?

Spencer also challenged the facility that performed the DNA testing. The court found no flaws in their procedures.

Landmark Case – 1st Death Sentence in the U.S. Based on DNA Evidence

Since so many writers craft stories involving serial killers and other murderers, I thought you would perhaps be interested in seeing a small part of the process involved in those cases as they make their way through the legal system.

* Spencer was the first person in the U.S. sentenced to death based on DNA evidence. This was a landmark case in the United States. I served as a witness to Spencer’s execution via electric chair. Patricia Cornwell’s first book, Post Mortem, was based on Spencer’s case and of the police investigation.

The following paragraphs are excerpts from Timothy W. Spencer’s appeal to The United States Court of Appeals, 4th Circuit. His argument – The DNA testing was flawed.

*WARNING – Parts of the text are quite graphic*

5 F.3d 758

Timothy W. SPENCER, Petitioner-Appellant,
v.
Edward W. MURRAY, Director, Respondent-Appellee.

No. 92-4006.

United States Court of Appeals,
Fourth Circuit.

Argued Oct. 28, 1992.
Decided Sept. 16, 1993.

J. Lloyd Snook, III, Snook & Haughey, Charlottesville, VA, argued (William T. Linka, Boatwright & Linka, Richmond, VA, on brief), for petitioner-appellant.

Donald Richard Curry, Sr. Asst. Atty. Gen., Richmond, VA (Mary Sue Terry, Atty. Gen. of Virginia, on brief), for respondent-appellee.

Before WIDENER, PHILLIPS, and WILLIAMS, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

WIDENER, Circuit Judge:

1 – Timothy Wilson Spencer attacks a Virginia state court judgment sentencing him to death for the murder of Debbie Dudley Davis. We affirm.

2 – The gruesome details of the murder of Debbie Davis can be found in the Supreme Court of Virginia’s opinion on direct review, Spencer v. Commonwealth, 238 Va. 295, 384 S.E.2d 785 (1989), cert. denied, 493 U.S. 1093, 110 S.Ct. 1171, 107 L.Ed.2d 1073 (1990). For our purposes, a brief recitation will suffice. Miss Davis was murdered sometime between 9:00 p.m. on September 18, 1987 and 9:30 a.m. on September 19, 1987. The victim’s body was found on her bed by officers of the Richmond Bureau of Police. She had been strangled by the use of a sock and vacuum cleaner hose, which had been assembled into what the Virginia Court called a ligature and ratchet-type device. The medical examiner determined that the ligature had been twisted two or three times, and the cause of death was ligature strangulation. The pressure exerted was so great that, in addition to cutting into Miss Davis’s neck muscles, larynx, and voice box, it had caused blood congestion in her head and a hemorrhage in one of her eyes. In addition her nose and mouth were bruised. Miss Davis’s hands were bound by the use of shoestrings, which were attached to the ligature device. 384 S.E.2d at 789.

3 – Semen stains were found on the victim’s bedclothes. The presence of spermatozoa also was found when rectal and vaginal swabs of the victim were taken. In addition, when the victim’s pubic hair was combed, two hairs were recovered that did not belong to the victim. 384 S.E.2d at 789. The two hairs later were determined through forensic analysis to be “consistent with” Spencer’s underarm hair. 384 S.E.2d at 789. Further forensic analysis was completed on the semen stains on the victim’s bedclothes. The analysis revealed that the stains had been deposited by a secretor whose blood characteristics matched a group comprised of approximately thirteen percent of the population. Spencer’s blood and saliva samples revealed that he is a member of that group. 384 S.E.2d at 789.

4 – Next, a sample of Spencer’s blood and the semen collected from the bedclothes were subjected to DNA analysis. The results of the DNA analysis, performed by Lifecodes Corporation, a private laboratory, established that the DNA molecules extracted from Spencer’s blood matched the DNA molecules extracted from the semen stains. Spencer is a black male, and the evidence adduced at trial showed that the statistical likelihood of finding duplication of Spencer’s particular DNA pattern in the population of members of the black race who live in North America is one in 705,000,000 (seven hundred five million). In addition, the evidence also showed that the number of black males living in North America was approximately 10,000,000 (ten million). 384 S.E.2d at 790.

5 – On September 22, 1988 a Richmond jury found Spencer guilty of rape, burglary, and capital murder. The jury unanimously fixed Spencer’s punishment at death, which was affirmed on direct appeal. Spencer then filed a petition for habeas corpus with the state trial court, which was dismissed. He appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court, but because his appeal was filed one day out of time, the Virginia Supreme Court refused the petition. Spencer then filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus with the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. The district court denied his petition. Spencer v. Murray, No. 3:91CV00391 (E.D.Va. April 30, 1992).

6 – On appeal, Spencer raises essentially five issues1: (1) the DNA evidence in this case is unreliable; (2) defense counsel was denied an opportunity to adequately defend against the DNA evidence because the trial court denied a discovery request for Lifecodes’ worknotes and memoranda, the trial court refused to provide funds for an expert defense witness,2 and the prosecution did not reveal evidence of problems with Lifecodes’ testing methods; (3) the trial court should not have admitted the DNA evidence; (4) the prosecution improperly struck Miss Chrita Shelton from the jury for racially-motivated reasons as prohibited by Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79, 106 S.Ct. 1712, 90 L.Ed.2d 69 (1986); and (5) the future dangerousness aggravating factor in Virginia’s capital sentencing scheme is unconstitutionally vague.

* Spencer’s major attack was on the DNA testing. I’ve inserted photos of the same type DNA testing  (electrophoresis, or gel testing) that Spencer claimed was faulty.  These photos are mine—I was the photographer. These were not part of the appeal. 

Spencer’s argument boils down to an assertion that the DNA results were flawed and he was wrongly convicted. This is a claim of factual innocence. The errors he points to–potential errors in the results of the DNA test–are errors of fact, not law.

… Specifically, Spencer points to a laundry list of problems that might have occurred with his DNA test, including:

1 – Bandshifting that may have occurred because the tests were not run on same gel (list continues below images);

DNA testing by electrophoresis (gel testing) … the process

Weighing the agar gel.

Mixing the gel with water.

Gel in chamber.

Forensic Facts

Injecting DNA into the gel.

Attaching electrodes to the chamber.

Introducing electric current to the gel.

Completed gel is placed onto an illuminator for viewing.

 Gel on illuminator.

*My thanks to Dr. Stephanie Smith for allowing me to hang out in her lab to take the above photos.

Completed gel showing DNA bands

DNA bands

Spencer’s claims against DNA continue:

2 – Cross-contamination or bacterial contamination of the samples because Lifecodes’ procedures do not guard against these threats;

3 – Invalidity because of the lack of data on the reliability of DNA testing of degraded forensic samples;

4 – Incorrect matching because visual inspection, rather than computer calculations, were used to declare a match;

5 – Invalidity that may have resulted from potentially poor quality control or proficiency standards;

6 – Impossibility of verifying results because Lifecodes did not record what voltage they applied to gel;

7 – Inability to know whether Lifecodes properly performed tests because there are no standards for licensure or required tests that labs must complete;

8 – Improper testimony at trial about the statistical likelihood of finding someone else with same DNA type because of potentially improper application of the product rule;

9 – Lack of validation studies to prove reliability of DNA testing in forensic setting and of using sperm to DNA type; and

10 – Possible inaccuracies resulting from Lifecodes’ use of certain probes

Spencer repeatedly urged, in his brief and at oral argument, that the main reason the DNA evidence in this case was found to be admissible is because it was “too new” to have been criticized, because the criticisms were published after his trial, and because Spencer was, according to counsel, the first person ever convicted and sentenced to death, using DNA evidence, in Virginia.

The Virginia State Supreme Court ruled that the DNA testing had been performed properly and denied Spencer’s appeal.


I sat twenty-feet or so from Spencer as he was put to death in Virginia’s electric chair. The procedure was gruesome, to say the least.

A few minutes after the final burst of electricity surged through Spencer’s body, time to allow the body to cool enough to allow a physical examination, the attending physician checked for signs of life. After a moment or two he looked up from Spencer’s body and said to the warden, “This man has expired.”

It was over.

Later, an unmarked DOC van carrying Spencer’s body departed the prison, passing through a crowd of people lining the roadway outside the main gate—protesters, and the many officers from state and county agencies who were assigned to maintain peace between the pro and anti death penalty groups. Both groups went silent as the van exited the prison gates and passed by on its way to the state morgue in Richmond where an autopsy was scheduled to be performed.

I knew how it felt to stand there watching those vans pass because I’d been assigned to the protection detail several times in the past. One of those times was for the execution of Roger Keith Coleman, a man convicted and sentenced to death for the rape, murder, and beheading of his sister-in-law.

Tension was high the night of Coleman’s execution and the crowds on both sides of the death penalty debate were large and angry.

Coleman’s case drew international attention. He, a coal miner from the mountains of Virginia, pleaded his case on talk shows and in magazines and newspapers. He was even featured on the cover of Time magazine. Pope John Paul II attempted to intervene, pleading to block the execution, and thousands upon thousands of protestors from around the globe sent letters to the governor of Va. Many made phone calls to his office.

But, DNA tests proved that Coleman was indeed the perpetrator of his sister-in-law’s brutal rape and murder. He submitted to a polygraph on the day of his execution as a last attempt to prove that he’d not committed the horrible crime. He failed the test.

Coleman’s final meal was a dinner of pepperoni pizza, fudge cookies, and a 7-Up. He went to “the chair” still proclaiming his innocence.

After Spencer’s execution concluded, prison officials drove me out and away from the facilty to my unmarked car I’d earlier parked behind the state police area headquarters. They’d picked me up there and driven me to the prison to prevent onlookers from knowing that I was to be a witness, a standard procedure.

As the prison van containing Spencer’s body passed by the protesters, I was already on my way home.

I looked into the eyes of a serial killer

Have you ever sat looking into the eyes of a serial killer, watching for some sign of remorse for his crimes, wondering if he would take back what he’d done, if he could? Have you ever smelled the burning flesh of a condemned killer as 1,800 volts of electricity ripped through his body? No? Well, I have.

Timothy Wilson Spencer began his deadly crime spree in 1984, when he raped and killed a woman named Carol Hamm in Arlington, Virginia. Spencer also killed Dr. Susan Hellams, Debby Davis, and Diane Cho, all of Richmond, Virginia. A month later, Spencer returned to Arlington to rape and murder Susan Tucker.

spencer.jpg

Timothy W. Spencer, The Southside Strangler

Other women in the area were killed by someone who committed those murders in a very similar manner. Was there a copycat killer who was never caught? Or, did Spencer kill those women too? We’ll probably never learn the truth.

Spencer was, however, later tried, convicted, and sentenced to die for the aforementioned murders. I requested to serve as a witness to his execution. I figured if I had the power to arrest and charge someone with capital murder, then I needed to see a death penalty case through to the end.

On the evening of Spencer’s execution, corrections officials met me at a state police area headquarters. I left my unmarked Chevrolet Caprice there and they drove me to the prison. We passed through the sally port and then through a couple of interior gates, stopping outside the building where death row inmates await their turn to die.

Once inside, I was led to a room where other witnesses waited for a briefing about what to expect. Then we, in single file, were led to where we’d soon watch a condemned man be put to death.

The room where I and other witnesses sat waiting was inside the death house at Virginia’s Greensville Correctional Center. At the time, the execution chamber was pretty much a bare room, with the exception of Old Sparky, the state’s electric chair, an instrument of death that, ironically, was built by prison inmates.

 

Old Sparky, Virginia’s electric chair, was built by inmates.

State executions in Virginia are carried out at Greensville Correctional Center.

The atmosphere that night was nothing short of surreal. No one spoke. No one coughed. Nothing. Not a sound as we waited for the door at the rear of “the chamber” to open. After an eternity passed, it did. A couple of prison officials entered first, and then Spencer walked into the chamber surrounded by members of the prison’s death squad (specially trained corrections officers).

I later learned that Spencer had walked the eight short steps to the chamber from a death watch cell, and he’d done so on his own without assistance from members of the squad. Sometimes the squad is forced to physically deliver the condemned prisoner to the execution chamber. I cannot fathom what sort mindset it takes to make that short and very final walk. Spencer seemed prepared for what was to come, and he’d made his peace with it.

Spencer was shorter and a bit more wiry than most people picture when thinking of a brutal serial killer. His head was shaved and one pant leg of his prison blues was cut short for easy access for attaching one of the connections (the negative post, I surmised). His skin was smooth and was the color of milk chocolate. Dots of perspiration were scattered across his forehead and bare scalp.

Spencer scanned the brightly lit room, looking from side to side, taking in the faces of the witnesses. I wondered if the blonde woman beside me reminded him of either of his victims. Perhaps, the lady in the back row who sat glaring at the condemned killer was the mother of one of the women Spencer had so brutally raped and murdered.

After glancing around the brightly lit surroundings, Spencer took a seat in the oak chair and calmly allowed the death squad to carry out their business of fastening straps, belts, and electrodes. His arms and legs were securely fixed to the chair. He looked on, seemingly uninterested in what they were doing, as if he’d just settled in to watch TV, or a movie.

I sat directly in front of the cold-blooded killer, mere feet away, separated only by a partial wall of glass. His gaze met mine and that’s where his focus remained for the next minute or so. His face was expressionless. No sign of sadness, regret, or fear.

The squad’s final task was to place a metal, colander-like hat on Spencer’s head. The cap was lined with a brine-soaked sponge that serves as an excellent conductor of electricity.

I wondered if Spencer felt the presence of the former killers who’d died in the chair before him—Morris Mason, Michael Smith, Ricky Boggs, Alton Wayne, Albert Clozza, Derrick Peterson, Willie Jones, Wilbert Evans, Charles Stamper, and Roger Coleman, to name a few.

Morris Mason had raped his 71-year-old neighbor. Then he’d hit her in the head with an ax, nailed her to a chair, set her house on fire, and then left her to die.

Alton Wayne stabbed an elderly woman with a butcher knife, bit her repeatedly, and then dragged her nude body to a bathtub where he doused it with bleach.

A prison chaplain once described Wilbert Evans’ execution as brutal. “Blood was pouring down onto his shirt and his body was making the sound of a pressure cooker ready to blow.” The preacher had also said, “I detest what goes on here.”

I wondered if Spencer felt any of those vibes coming from the chair. And I wondered if he’d heard that his muscles would contract, causing his body to lunge forward. That the heat would literally make his blood boil. That the electrode contact points were going to burn his skin. Did he know that his joints were going to fuse, leaving him in a sitting position? Had anyone told him that later someone would have to use sandbags to straighten out his body? Had he wondered why they’d replaced the metal buttons buttons on his clothes with Velcro? Did they tell him that the buttons would have melted?

For the previous twenty-four hours, Spencer had seen the flurry of activity inside the death house. He’d heard the death squad practicing and testing the chair. He’d seen them rehearsing their take-down techniques in case he decided to resist while they escorted him to the chamber. He watched them swing their batons at a make-believe prisoner. He saw their glances and he heard their mutterings.

Was he thinking about what he’d done?

I wanted to ask him if he was sorry for what he’d done. I wanted to know why he’d killed those women. What drove him to take human lives so callously?

The warden asked Spencer if he cared to say any final words—a time when many condemned murderers ask for forgiveness and offer an apology to family members of the people they’d murdered. Spencer opened his mouth to say something, but stopped, offering no apology and showing no remorse. Whatever he’d been about to say, well, he took it with him to his grave.

He made eye contact with me again. And believe me, this time it was a chilling experience to look into the eyes of a serial killer just mere seconds before he himself was killed. All the way to the end, he kept his gaze on me.

In those remaining seconds everyone’s thoughts were on the red telephone hanging on the wall at the rear of the chamber—the direct line to the governor. Spencer’s last hope to live beyond the next few seconds. It did not ring.

The warden nodded to the executioner, who, by the way, remained behind a wall inside the chamber and out of our view. Spencer must have sensed what was coming and, while looking directly into my eyes, turned both thumbs upward. A last second display of his arrogance. A death squad member placed a leather mask over Spencer’s face, then he and the rest of the team left the room. The remaining officials stepped back, away from the chair.

Seconds later, the lethal dose of electricity was introduced, causing the murderer’s body to swell and lurch forward against the restraints that held him tightly to the chair.

Suddenly, his body slumped into the chair. The burst of electricity was over. However, after a brief pause, the executioner sent a second burst to the killer’s body. Again, his body swelled, but this time smoke began to rise from Spencer’s head and leg. A sound similar to bacon frying could be heard over the hum of the electricity. Fluids rushed from behind the leather mask. The unmistakable pungent odor of burning flesh filled the room.

The electricity was again switched off and Spencer’s body relaxed.

It was over and an eerie calm filled the chamber. The woman beside me cried softly. I realized that I’d been holding my breath and exhaled, slowly. No one moved for five long minutes. I later learned that this wait-time was to allow the body to cool down. The hot flesh would have burned anyone who touched it.

The prison doctor slowly walked to the chair where he placed a stethoscope against Spencer’s chest, listening for a heartbeat. A few seconds passed before the doctor looked up and said, “Warden, this man has expired.”

That was it. Timothy Spencer, one of the worse serial killers in America was dead, finally.

Timothy Spencer was put to death on April 27, 1994 at 11:13 pm.


Unusual facts about Spencer’s case:

– Spencer raped and killed all five of his victims while living at a Richmond, Virginia halfway house after his release from a three-year prison sentence for burglary. He committed the murders on the weekends during times when he had signed out of the facility.

– Spencer was the first person in the U.S. executed for a conviction based on DNA evidence.

– David Vasquez, a mentally handicapped man, falsely confessed to murdering one of the victims in the Spencer case after intense interrogation by police detectives. He was later convicted of the crime and served five years in prison before DNA testing proved his innocence. It was learned that Vasquez didn’t understand the questions he’d been asked and merely told the officers what he thought they wanted to hear.

– Spencer used neck ligatures to strangle each of the victims to death, fashioning them in such a way that the more the victims struggled, the more they choked.

– Patricia Cornwell’s first book, Post Mortem, was based on the Spencer murders.