In the early morning hours of Nov. 13, Madison Mogen, Kaylee Goncalves, Xana Kernodle, and Ethan Chapin were stabbed to death in their home in Moscow, Idaho. The violent murders of the four Idaho State University students left people around the world stunned and horrified.
In December, onlookers were in for another shock when police apprehended Bryan Kohberger, a Washington State criminology PhD student, in connection with the quadruple homicide.
“To brutally kill four people, with a knife in particular, in their sleep—whoever did it, there’s something clearly off or not right about that person. And I will say, I don’t think it has anything to do with our field,” said Dr. Matthew Robinson, a criminology professor at Appalachian State University in North Carolina.
However, media outlets and those following the case immediately latched on to the suspect’s academic background.
As part of his education, Kohberger had administered a survey to criminals. The survey asked a series of questions about how they prepared for and committed crimes, as well as their mental state before, during, and after perpetration. It included questions like: “Did you prepare for the crime before leaving your home? Please detail what you were thinking and feeling at this point.” and “Before making your move, how did you approach the victim or target? Please detail what you were thinking and feeling.”
The criminology student turned suspect in a case of international notoriety had also applied for a job with the Pullman Police Department in Washington earlier in 2022. Following an interview for the position, he had sent an email to the police chief, saying: “a great pleasure to meet with you today and share my thoughts and excitement regarding the research assistantship for public safety.”
High profile criminals
The case of the Idaho Murders is not the first high-profile case with a suspect or perpetrator having a background in criminal justice education. Several notorious criminals have sought out an education in the field. Joseph DeAngelo, the Golden State Killer or the Night Stalker, obtained degrees in Police Science and Criminal Justice. Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer, gained a B.Sc. majoring in Administration of Justice. Most famously, Ted Bundy studied psychology and law and went on to represent himself in court.
Kerri Rawson, the BTK Killer’s daughter, has spoken out about the Idaho Murders, claiming that students need to learn about dangerous killers like her father in order to catch them. She wonders at what point an interest crosses the line to fascination and wanting to commit the perfect crime.
“I don’t know what it says if somebody is that deviant and is working academically with these people and they’re not being caught,” said Rawson in an interview with News Nation.
The study of criminology
“We’re trying to push back on the idea that somehow, studying the field makes people more prone to crime or more prone to killing,” said Robinson, who is in the top 20 of the most influential criminologists in the world.
Robinson has written over 20 academic books. In 1999, he wrote a paper discussing crimes committed by those in the field of criminology titled, ‘Criminologists: are we what we study?’
Part of Robinson’s research on the topic entailed conducting an anonymous survey asking participants questions on whether they had committed different forms of criminal behaviour. The survey was sent out to 1,500 participants who worked in the field of criminology to some extent, including professors, graduate students, and criminal justice practitioners.
Survey results showed that criminologists do participate in deviant behaviour, with 60 per cent admitting to illegal drug use, 55 per cent admitting to theft, 36 per cent to assault, 26 per cent to battery, and 22 per cent to burglary.
The paper concludes by stating that, based on the evidence gathered, criminologists are, to some extent, what they study by also committing illegal acts, many of which are classified as harmful and serious.
“I don’t think there’s anything in the study of crime or criminology or criminal justice that would increase the likelihood that someone would commit a crime,” said Robinson.
Following Kohberger’s arrest in the Idaho murder case, some have put forward the idea of a screening process for those entering the field of criminology.
“When it comes to education—education should be open for all. I don’t think that screening criteria are beneficial. The fear of giving someone knowledge because you think they are going to use it for negative reasons is extremely speculative at best,” said Scott Mark, law enforcement specialization instructor at Bow Valley College in Calgary, Alta.
The fear of giving someone knowledge because you think they are going to use it for negative reasons is extremely speculative at best. – Scott Mark
“Most research in criminology demonstrates that a lot of social ills or crime that exists in society is a symptom of different inequalities that exist. I think to create a screening process only generates the potential for an additional inequality, which is more likely going to contribute to crime than solve the issue.”
Mark worked as a crime scene investigator and forensic specialist for 10 years before completing a master’s degree in education.
“It’s part of human nature to want to find an explanation when serious crimes happen,” said Mark. “I think being too quick to suppose we have the answers is probably one of the biggest flaws.”