What Makes a Murderer – the documentary series trying to figure out why some people kill

The Channel 4 series analyses the psychology and biology of three convicted murderers. Alexandra Pollard speaks to forensic psychologist Vicky Thakordas-Desai about what she hopes the programme will achieve

Thursday 28 November 2019 01:40 GMT
Dr Vicky Thakordas-Desai, Professor Adrian Raine and Paul Aldridge in What Makes a Murderer
Dr Vicky Thakordas-Desai, Professor Adrian Raine and Paul Aldridge in What Makes a Murderer (Richard Ansett)

In 1996 a lone hitch-hiker was beaten to death by two young men. They had intended to rob him – while chatting away in the van, he had let slip about a recent lottery win – but it turned out he had no money. He had in fact recently wandered off from a psychiatric hospital. So they punched him, attacked him with a tree branch and dumped his body by the side of the road. One of those men, Paul Aldridge, is a subject of the Channel 4 documentary series What Makes a Murderer.

“I just really didn’t care what I’d done,” says Aldridge, who spent 22 years in prison. “I didn’t have any thoughts about anyone else. It was, ‘You’ve got something I need, and I want it, and I will take it.’”

We’re more obsessed than ever with true crime documentaries, but in a cultural landscape proliferated with real-life whodunits – Making a Murderer, Serial, The Jinx, The Disappearance of Madeleine McCannWhat Makes a Murderer is more interested in why they did it. The programme aims to figure out what drives people to kill.

Often the debate centres around the question of nature vs nurture. What Makes a Murderer posits that it’s both. While neurocriminologist Professor Adrian Raine studies the three subjects’ biology, scanning their brains, measuring their heart and sweat rate, and analysing their hormonal activity, forensic psychologist Dr Vicky Thakordas-Desai delves into their emotional history – interviewing them about their crime and the life that led to it.

“Paul’s early life experiences were pretty traumatic,” Thakordas-Desai tells me. “Witnessing domestic abuse, being a victim of physical, sexual maltreatment, neglect – they were very much there in abundance. Alongside that, there was a lack of a protective figure or a maternal figure. And very early on, he started to see aggression and violence normalised around him.”

Thakordas-Desai didn’t know much about Raine’s work before she signed up for the show. “When he talked about minor physical anomalies, I was a little bit dubious,” she admits. “I wasn’t quite sure what that was going to bring. But when it came to his understanding of the brain, and particular trauma that may have affected functions of the brain, that really interested me.”

The pair’s findings, the programme claims, “are set to change our perception of crime and punishment forever”. Thakordas-Desai is a little less hyperbolic about it. “That’s quite a big statement isn’t it?” she says. “I think it’s trying to help people think differently about crime and what we do with offenders.”

This isn’t about taking away culpability or responsibility, she says. “The process is never about glamourising crime or making excuses. A crime has been committed; there has to be retribution. This is about gaining an understanding. We’re all individuals, we’re all made up differently, and our experiences impact what we become.”

She wants to make clear, too, that she’s not suggesting everyone subjected to childhood trauma will become a criminal. “We’re not making a blanket statement that anyone who has experience of trauma or abuse or neglect is going to become a violent offender,” she says. “That’s just not true. What we do know is that, coupled with a variety of other risk factors and a lack of protective factors, that can create a mix for somebody to have an increased propensity for offending.”

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Another of the programme’s subjects, John Massey, was one of Britain’s longest-serving prisoners. In 1975 he shot a nightclub bouncer in the chest at point-blank range – though the way he describes, you would think it was the bouncer’s own fault for not doing what he was told.

“John, throughout the process, was a tricky character,” says Thakordas-Desai. “He really struggles to take responsibility. He has done throughout his sentence. He was challenged, and he didn’t like being challenged, and that didn’t come across on the programme because that was all edited out. He did not want to be asked certain questions. He did not want me to say to him, ‘You didn’t actually think about anyone else other than yourself.’”

Is it hard to stay composed in situations like this? “I’m a human being,” she says with a laugh. “I have had to listen to some of the most horrific acts of violence.”

Thakordas-Desai spent 20 years interviewing prisoners and assessing their risk to society. “I’ve had my own challenges coming across violence and murder of children. Being a mother myself, it was extremely hard to not be completely horrified by what I was hearing. But ultimately, I had a job to do. I had to remain neutral.”

As the general election campaign gathers steam, politicians are making big promises about dealing with violent crime. But Thakordas-Desai sees a problem.

“All these manifestos talk about how crime will be tackled,” she says. “There’s a big emphasis on law enforcement and the length of sentences. The key issues are around the punitive element. But when I was based in prison about 15 years ago, there seemed to be more of a commitment and investment in rehabilitation. That looks very different now. We’re talking about expanding prison.”

The question is, what happens to prisoners when they get out if governments continue to pull focus away from rehabilitation? “We’re not going to contain offenders in prison forever,” she says. “We can’t do that. They will integrate back into society at some point. I think we need to help people think differently about crime. How can we change our perceptions? That really is the premise of the programme. We need to try to understand.”

What Makes a Murderer airs tonight at 9pm on Channel 4, and continues next Thursday

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