Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Touching Evil: Getting To Know A Serial Killer



Touching Evil: Getting to know a serial killer is the title given to a three part series published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The story surrounds a class of senior forensic science majors at Dunquesne University who contacted and corresponded with the serial killer Keith Hunter Jesperson for a class project. Keith Hunter Jesperson murdered at least eight women between 1990 and 1995.

Background To The Forensic Science Project

The idea for the project was put forward by course teacher Ronald Freeman as a way of providing students with an alternative perspective on forensic investigation. "In school, they talk to professors, scientists, and I'm an ex-cop. They get our perspective on the criminal justice system. I thought, 'Why not try to look at it from a different side?'"

Having suggested and ascertained that the forensic science class wanted to contact Jesperson, approval was also sought from the students parents, the director of the forensic science and law degree program and the dean of the school.

Making Contact

Click Here to read the first letter the forensic science students sent to serial killer Keith Hunter Jesperson.

In addition to the original letter, a further dozen or so were exchanged between Jesperson and the forensics class and on the 5th of November the class held a live Q&A session with Jesperson via conference call.

Audio Excerpts

You can listen to several excerpts from the conference call by clicking on the following links.

How Jesperson Killed His Victims

The Happy Face Killer Nickname

Things Jesperson Regrets

What Compelled Jesperson To Kill

Why Jesperson Agreed To Particpate In The Class Project

What Went through Jesperson's Mind As He Killed

What Do You Think About This Project

My personal view is that generally speaking it evokes all the normal reactions associated with anything to do with serial killers i.e., compelling, fascinating, intriguing etc but I have to say that this project makes me feel very uncomfortable on a number of levels.

I have no doubt that the intentions of the project were honorable and genuinely designed to provide a unique learning experience for the students involved, but I am struggling to see how this experience would translate into improved forensic investigation skills and/or knowledge in the field.

Even if this could be qualified in some way I strongly believe that Jesperson got so much more out of this that the students ever could, not least beacuse it provided him with the perfect platform to do what he loves doing best, namely manipulating, dominating and controlling. The following quotes from class members were just two of many that made me wince.

"I had no idea that he was going to turn out to be actually such a pretty nice guy aside from the fact that he killed a bunch of people."

"I guess I expected someone who would be a little more harsh and callous, but he was really nice, like an uncle kind of nice, which is kind of strange,"

I also found aspects of the reporting crass in the extreme. The start of second part of the Touching Evil: Getting to know a serial killer series begins:

The student's blood-red T-shirt was a big hit. "Friends help you move," the front said. And on the back, "Real friends help you move a body." The dark humor was dead-on funny for the 30 Duquesne University forensic science and law majors.

Gallows humor is common place within the forensic community and serves as a useful coping mechansim, but it's nearly always kept in-house and I think to document something like this in such a public way shows a basic lack of respect for the victims and the their families, however, unintentional.

You can have your say by clicking on the comments link at the end of the post.

More Information

A number of video clips regarding this project have been produced which can be accessed by Clicking Here

You can read the first part of the Touching Evil: Getting to know a serial killer series by Clicking Here

You can read the second part of the Touching Evil: Getting to know a serial killer series by Clicking Here

Related Reading

"I": The Creation of a Serial Killer by Jack Olsen



Library Journal Book Review

During the 1990s, the Pacific Northwest was besieged by a serial killer, Keith Hunter Jesperson, who taunted the police for incarcerating the wrong people for one of his eight victims; he signed his letter to the police with a happy face and hence became known as the Happy Face Killer.

Renowned true-crime author Olsen (Hastened to the Grave) uses diaries, court records, and interviews with the killer himself to present Jesperson's version of why he became a serial killer and how he killed his victims. As a truck driver, he was able to travel cross-country and kill young women who, he thought, were going to present a problem for him. With each of his victims, he played a "death game" in which he choked them, then revived them a few times before killing them.

The book's flaw is that it is one-sided. The reader is not told how law enforcement officers caught on to Jesperson or about the trial. Nor does it provide details as to what happened to the wrongly convicted. Nevertheless, Olsen's popularity in the genre will make this a popular choice for public libraries.

For more details and/or to get hold of this book, just click on the following link.

I: The Creation of a Serial Killer

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Touching Evil: Getting To Know A Serial Killer

2 comments:

TH PhD said...

The students that participated in the interview are young. I have always felt that education defines your interests and the application of the education is the source of true knowledge. This occurs in the streets and in the clinical setting. It is evident that the students have not delt with patients having sociopathic personality disorders. I would venture to guess that the most that they have encountered are egocentric individuals that they could walk away from. I hope that their professor defined the difference in a man which comes forth with the image of an uncle and one that is mentally ill and will never be anything but a psychopath. Time will introduce them to the real side of the streets. I spent the first several years on the streets in law enforcement and that seasoned me for the rest of my educational and applicable life. It was interesting to listen to the subject, I have interviewed numerous killers and one thing stands out among them and that is that they are all very sad, lonely and ego driven persons. Some were more intelligent than others, but all fled the scene and resisted being caught.
Enjoy your site,
TH PhD

Anonymous said...

Hmmm, I can't quite put my finger on what I found 'wrong' with the Jesperson/Student interview.

I can see the benefits to the students but I agree, Jesperson got far, far more out of it (attention from young females for one).

It kind of reminded me of the final Bundy interview - I thought that was such poor taste & the ultimate insult to the families of the girls killed by him.

I agree we need to 'study' these people & I am firmly against the death penalty, I just don't feel he should have been given a 'public platform' so to speak, how could you ever know if he was being truthful anyway?? You can't.

Of course he would come across 'nice', if he came across as an evil bastard on first meeting him he would never have had the opportunity to kill in the first place. I found the comments from these girls quite naive to say the least, they may be young but so am I!!

Was he 'helping' the students for the right reasons? Of course not! Not a chance, it was for his own ends, same as his crimes...