Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Karla Homolka and Co-Offenders

Recently, I found a Cracked article titled 5 Horrific Serial Killers (Who Are Free Right Now). The only woman on the list is Karla Homolka from Canada, a serial killer co-offender.

Karla Homolka met Paul Bernado when she was 17 and he was 23. Shortly before their marriage, Paul Bernado became obsessed with her younger sister Tammy and convinced her to help him rape her. They drugged Tammy and both of them raped her, and she choked on her own vomit and died. The two later kidnapped, raped and murdered two other young women before the police were onto them.

All three attacks were instigated by Paul Bernado. He also physically abused Karla, at one point beating her with a flashlight until she was covered in bruises. Paul Bernado also did several separate crimes - a series of rapes. Karla Homolka claimed that Paul Bernado forced her into participating in the killings.

Now, it's unclear if this is true. Paul Bernado gave a conflicting account that claimed that while he and Karla both participated in kidnapping and rape, Karla did the killings of her own initiative when he was out of the room. It all depends who you believe more. But much of the public outcry over Karla Homolka's shorter sentence, including the Cracked article, is based on the assumption that if she didn't want to be a party to murder, she would have gone to the police.

Stanley Milgram originally made a similar assumption. He designed a study in which the participant, designated the 'teacher', attempted to teach a word list to the 'learner' using steadily escalating electric shocks. The learner was in fact a confederate, was not receiving any shocks, and was instructed to progressively make mistakes, protest the situation, and then eventually fall silent (suggesting the possibility of serious injury). Milgram predicted that only a small number of people would proceed until the experimenter agreed to stop - most, he felt, would refuse at some point.

He was wrong. Fully 65% of people showed full obediance to the experimenter. Of those who broke off the experiment, all had progressed at least to the point where the learner fell silent. Repeat studies have confirmed this finding, as well as extending it to a situation where three 'teachers' (two confederates and the subject) conferred about shock and the two confederates both pushed for a steady increase.

Of course, there are numerous differences between the situation of Milgram's subjects and that of Karla Homolka. But the differences go both ways. On the one hand, the subjects in Milgram's study were not directly faced with their victims, since the learner was in another room. The experimenter, a scientist with a respected university, promised that no harm would come to the subject. And the participants believed that good would come out of the study, since it would advance scientific knowledge. None of this appeared to be true for Karla Homolka.

However, the experimenter had no power to punish the teacher in any way, whereas Paul Bernado clearly could cause harm to Karla Homolka. The subjects had no prior attachment to the experimenter, whereas Karla Homolka was in love with Paul Bernado. Furthermore, once she'd done the first attempted rape of Tammy, going to the police would have involved confessing to her own wrongdoings as well.

If Karla Homolka's account is to be believed, therefore, she was not so strange as people think. Many people, in a similar situation, might do the same thing. Not that her behavior was in any way morally right. But it was not necessarily the behavior of a psychopath. It could have simply been the behavior of an overly loyal person, or perhaps a coward.


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