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Personality Disorders

Do Criminals Draw a "Red Line" for Themselves?

Why criminals claim there are some crimes they'd never commit.

Key points

  • Criminals profess there are certain crimes they would not consider.
  • The shifting wants and needs of criminals results in a shift in his thoughts about what is unacceptable.
  • Because criminals are so secretive, it is difficult to determine whether and where they set limits for themselves.

Viewers of the recent trial of South Carolina lawyer Alex Murdaugh for a double homicide heard the defendant declare that he would never hurt his wife or son. In fact, these were his final words to the judge who sentenced him to two life terms in prison.

Murdaugh's financial dealings were a focus of attention at one point in the trial. He swindled clients and colleagues out of millions of dollars. Despite defrauding his own vulnerable clients and deceiving sophisticated colleagues, he had no reputation for being violent.

The question arises: do criminals draw any lines for themselves as to crimes they would not even consider, much less commit?

"Anyone who would knock down an old lady and steal her purse is a low-life," declared a teenage client of mine. He expressed outrage at the idea he could commit such a crime. Although he had not committed that particular crime, he had come close by delving into purses left unattended. These crimes were acceptable because he did not attack the victim.

A prison inmate whom I once evaluated asserted that he would never sexually assault a child and that anyone who did should get the death penalty. He explained his rape of an underage girl by saying that she looked a lot older than she was. To his way of thinking, he still was adhering to his principles that he would never mess with kids.

Louis, another client of mine, insisted that he would never hurt his mother, whom he described in saint-like terms. She was the one who gave him a place to live, thought he was a good person, bailed him out of jams, and forgave him again and again for his misdeeds. He was oblivious to the fact that his mother worried constantly about his safety: where he was, whom he was with, and whether he would be arrested again. Over and over, Louis pledged to do better and stay out of trouble. His idea of not harming his mother was to protect her from others. However, Louis did not stick to this, either. Often, he became infuriated at her, threatened her, and shoved her. He became irate when a counselor pointed out that he was hurting her nearly every day of her life.

Criminals boast of remaining loyal to their partners and adhering to the street code of not snitching. However, if the price is right, they will rat out a buddy and exploit him. Under such circumstances, the code of the street is set aside. The red line disappears.

By boasting about crimes that they would not even consider, criminals build up others' view of them and their own good opinion of themselves. However, circumstances may be such that they set aside their "red line." At these times, they have the uncanny ability to shut off from their considerations of right and wrong.

Although he confessed to financial crimes, Alex Murdaugh indicated repeatedly that his "red line" was harming the people he loved most. He flatly denied killing his wife and son. The jury did not find him credible. Because he did not want his wife and son to know about particular financial crimes that were about to come to light, he shot both of them. (Evidence revealed that he was on his property at the very time they were murdered.) They would not be around to cause him any trouble.

Criminals do establish their own "red lines" with respect to the crimes they commit. But these lines shift according to circumstances and are not effective deterrents. Any "red lines" that criminals set are temporary. What is off limits is likely to change with the criminal's whims, opportunities, and overall quest for excitement.

More from Stanton E. Samenow Ph.D.
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More from Stanton E. Samenow Ph.D.
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