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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Psychopathic traits and offender characteristics – a nationwide consecutive sample of homicidal male adolescents

Nina Lindberg14*, Taina Laajasalo2, Matti Holi3, Hanna Putkonen4, Ghitta Weizmann-Henelius4 and Helinä Häkkänen-Nyholm25

Author Affiliations

1 Helsinki University Central Hospital, Department of Adolescent Psychiatry, PO Box 590, 00029 HUS/HYKS, Helsinki, Finland

2 Department of Psychology, PO Box 9, 00014 University of Helsinki, Finland

3 Kellokoski Hospital, 04500 Kellokoski, Finland

4 Vanha Vaasa Hospital, PO Box 13, 65381 Vaasa, Finland

5 Forensic Laboratory, National Bureau of Investigation, PO Box 285, 01301 Vantaa, Finland

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BMC Psychiatry 2009, 9:18  doi:10.1186/1471-244X-9-18

Published: 6 May 2009

Abstract

Background

The aim of the study was to evaluate psychopathy-like personality traits in a nationwide consecutive sample of adolescent male homicide offenders and to compare the findings with those of a randomly sampled adult male homicide offender group. A further aim was to investigate associations between psychopathic traits and offender and offence characteristics in adolescent homicides.

Methods

Forensic psychiatric examination reports and crime reports of all 15 to19- year- old male Finnish offenders who had been subjected to a forensic psychiatric examination and convicted for a homicide during 1995–2004 were collected (n = 57). A random sample of 57 adult male homicide offenders was selected as a comparison group. Offence and offender characteristics were collected from the files and a file-based assessment of psychopathic traits was performed using the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) by trained raters.

Results

No significant differences existed between the adolescents and adults in PCL-R total scores, factor 2 (social deviance) scores, or in facets 3 (lifestyle) and 4 (antisocial). Adults scored significantly higher on factor 1 (interpersonal/affective) and facets 1 (interpersonal) and 2 (affective). The adolescent group was divided into two subgroups according to PCL-R total scores. One in five homicidal male adolescents met criteria for psychopathic personality using a PCL-R total score of 26 or higher. These boys significantly more often had a crime history before the index homicide, more frequently used excessive violence during the index homicide, more rarely lived with both parents until 16 years of age, had more institutional or foster home placements in childhood, had more school difficulties, more often had received special education, and, more often had contact with mental health services prior to age 18 years than boys scoring low on the PCL-R. They also more often had parental criminal history as well as homicide history of parents or near relatives than the group scoring low on the PCL-R.

Conclusion

Homicidal boys behaved as antisocially as the homicidal adults. The adults, however, showed more both affective and interpersonal features of psychopathy. Homicidal adolescents with psychopathy-like personality character form a special subgroup among other homicidal youngsters. Recognizing their characteristics, especially in life course development, would facilitate effective prevention and intervention efforts.