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The Cleveland Strangler

How Murder Coverage Can Inspire Copycat Killers

By providing lurid details, posting step-by-step ​recaps​, and publishing manifestos that gratify the killer's need for attention, media outlets play a key role in the proliferation of modern copycat killers.

by Allie Conti
Nov 5 2015, 4:00pm
On Friday, July 19, 2013, a police officer in East Cleveland was searching a garage to Michael Madison because they'd received complaints about a foul smell. After of plastic bags that were wedged between a wall and a 1983 Oldsmobile Cutlass, he discovered the body of 18-year-old Shirellda Helen Terry.
leasedcutting through six layers

The following day, the remains of two more women, Angela Deskins and Shetisha Sheeley, were recovered nearby, in a basement and a field. When authorities questioned Madison, a 35-year-old sex offender and convicted marijuana dealer, about the gruesome discovery, he told them he was influenced by Anthony Sowell, the so-called Cleveland Strangler, who was already on death row for the murder of 11 women.

According to East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton, Madison "idolized" Sowell and was "influenced" by him. "Unfortunately, this is a sick individual who appears to have been influenced by another sick individual," Norton told CNN. "If he had been out for one more hour, there's no telling what would have happened."

And while details about what exactly Madison said are scant—partially because his trial has not yet begun—his comments seem to place him squarely in the macabre tradition of the "copycat killer." Both Madison and Sowell targeted African-American women and stashed their corpses in an impoverished area where abandoned houses, squalor, and an apparent paucity of concern for minority victims helped stave off police attention.

Just last month, an Ohio appeals court affirmed that Madison must go undergo a psychological evaluation, much to the chagrin of his attorneys, who feel it will undercut their client's Fifth Amendment right to not incriminate himself. If Madison does repeat claims about a desire to imitate Sowell, he would assume a perch squarely in the annals of a centuries-old phenomenon that only seems to growing more common—and deadly—in this era of 24-hour news coverage and digital media saturation.

"If you think about any trend, it can either be pro-social or anti-social," Robert Beattey, a former prosecutor and current professor of forensic psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, told VICE. "And what the scientific literature has found—almost universally—is that there is a very small but statistically significant correlation between consumption of violent media and raises in level of aggression. The problem is that millions of people consume violent games and movies, but only [a tiny percentage] end up hurting another person because of it."

The question of who is likely to take their cues from lurid media reports is one that has occupied the mind of Loren Coleman for decades. The author and cryptozoologist believes one of the first instances of people imitating violence they learned about through the media came in the late 1700s, after Johann Wolfgang von Goethe published The Sorrows of Young Werther.

"It was a novel about a guy who was in anguish over losing his love, and he sat at a little writing table and wrote a suicide note and then shot himself," Coleman said. "There were lots of young men in their little waistcoats shooting themselves after they read that novel."

It wasn't until 1974, though, that a State University of New York professor named David Philips coined the term "Werther effect" in a paper for the American Sociological Review. Still, the phrase didn't catch on because it was tucked away in psychological journals, and it took Coleman writing his own 1987 book called Suicide Clusters and talking about it on programs like Larry King Live to get the idea lodged in the public consciousness.

In his second book, Coleman would expand on the idea of copycatting, this time focusing on how the proliferation of the telegraph seemed to coincide with the crimes of Jack the Ripper, and how a wave of rapes and murders swept Europe in the wake of salacious coverage of his crimes.

A newspaper broadsheet that helped build the legend of the "Leather Apron," a.k.a. Jack the Ripper. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Many serial killers have admitted to being students of their predecessors whom they study and, in at least one case, even ask for advice. In 1996, a New York City man was apprehended for fatally shooting three people and injuring four more in a crime spree that was modeled after that of the Zodiac Killer.

Today, as a result of Coleman's first book and the insistence of organizations like the American Association of Suicidology, reporters frequently leave out some details when reporting on people who have taken their own lives. As Poynter points out, it's generally not a good practice to give step-by-step instructions on how the suicide was committed, or to provide quotes from people reacting with shock or sadness, because they might romanticize the act.

Coleman says we should treat serial killers and mass shooters the same way, and that the media should not be providing lurid details, posting step-by-step instructions, or publishing manifestos that gratify the killer's need for attention.

The question, then, is where to draw the line. Randy Cohen, the former ethicist for the New York Times Magazine, generally lives by the principle that people are obligated to promote change that helps society act morally. However, he told me that the public's demand for access to information is more important than preventing copycats. He stresses that the role of the press is not crime-fighting, and that trying to chip away at serial killer stories by excluding, for instance, the accused's name, can be a slippery slope.

"Do you not report big bank robberies because people will want to rob banks? Do you not cover the Kardashians because it will inspire other people to be vulgar and self-promoting?" he says. "These are difficult, challenging questions."

Kelly McBride, the media ethicist at the Poynter Institute, says that these questions likely won't be answered for decades because scientific research on the contagion of serial killers and mass shootings is still in its infant stages. But in the meantime, she says, it's probably not a good idea to give murderers a nickname like The Cleveland Strangler, because it "gives them a Batman villain status."

"I think that taking the fame out of it and using or not using the name are not mutually exclusive," she told me. "The way to do that is to ask what the journalistic purpose for is using the name. One of the reasons it was really important to use the Virginia Tech shooter's name was that several people on campus had been concerned about who he was and if he was dangerous. If his name had not been a part of the report, they would not have known."

However, naming mass killers and publishing their manifestos obviously has a dark side, too. One of the most recent campus shootings, which happened in Oregon at the beginning of last month, was committed by a young man who claimed to idolize the former journalist who shot and killed a cameraman and anchorwoman on live television.

So even though scientific evidence for murder contagion has a long way to go to catch up to that of suicide contagion, anecdotal evidence abounds. And while it might not have appeared in many academic papers yet, the term "copycat killer" long-ago seized a permanent place in the lexicon, thanks in part to an assist from 1995's Sigourney Weaver flick Copycat and the Scream franchise.

"Everybody ignored it and laughed at me," Coleman told me. "Now everybody from the New York Times to the FBI talks about the copycat effect and considers it a reality. But in the early days, there was a lot of ridicule for it."

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