Experts analyze killer impulse

Scientists try to link biology, lifestyles with criminal acts

Confronting Crime

The Battle For Baltimore's Future

October 07, 2007|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,Sun reporter

Corey McMillon was angry. The teen in the camouflage sneakers had disrespected him.

One of McMillon's buddies had asked 17-year-old Jamel Jermaine St. Clair for $5, and Jamel had complied. Then McMillon asked for $1. This time, Jamel said no. A simple no to many, a slap in the face to McMillon.

He left, got his 9 mm semiautomatic handgun and confronted Jamel on a desolate East Baltimore street. After McMillon emptied Jamel's pockets, the teen turned and started to run.

McMillon shot him, then shot again and again and again.

"He was going to teach him a lesson," Tonya M. LaPolla, an assistant state's attorney, would go on to tell a jury. "As he approached the victim with his gun, Mr. St. Clair disrespected him only one more time by running, and you don't run on Corey Mac. Not only did he take his money, he took his life."

For decades, scientists have studied just what makes someone take a life, cross the line from angry person to violent killer. Baltimore has many Corey McMillons who kill brazenly, without remorse. Are they born with something broken or missing in their brains - impulse control, perhaps, or a conscience? What's the influence of their environment, of abusive parents, of dangerous neighborhoods, of violent video games?

"The question of why we as human beings are violent is one of the great unanswered questions about us," said Dr. Debra Niehoff, a Johns Hopkins-trained neurobiologist and author of the book The Biology of Violence: How Understanding the Brain, Behavior, and Environment Can Break the Vicious Circle of Aggression.

Humans are born with the capacity for aggression for survival purposes, an evolutionary need to be able to face down attack from wild animals, or from others invading their territory. "You have to be able to defend yourself," said Dr. Allan Siegel of the New Jersey Medical School, who has studied the neurobiology of aggression and rage for the past 40 years.

As they strive to learn more about the underpinnings of violent behavior, some scientists are researching genetic variations that may be present in those who are prone to violence. In one study, researchers discovered that the same variation in one gene seemed to be found in most of the study subjects who had arrest records.

Other scientists are looking at the brain's neurochemistry to see whether long-term exposure to dangerous situations or abuse throws off the fight-or-flight response system, causing violent overreaction to minor provocations.

Meanwhile, MRI technology is allowing researchers to probe the brain noninvasively, scanning to determine how it responds when threatened. Using these techniques, they say they hope to learn, among other things, why one person flies into a rage when another walks away from the same situation. The goal is to someday prevent violence before it occurs.

Still, at this point, said Siegel, "you can't say, `This guy's going to shoot somebody.' We're a long way from that level."

Hard life, hard crime

If researchers were to look at the life of Corey McMillon, they would find affirmation for some of their theories. But they would still encounter some things they could not explain.

When McMillon killed Jamel St. Clair in April 2005, he was 29, ancient by the standards of criminal life on Baltimore streets.

By he had done two stretches in prison, the first stemming from a guilty plea for three counts of robbery with a deadly weapon and drug possession in 1995, an incident in which all three victims were shot. That episode took place the day after McMillon was accused of shooting a former elementary school classmate. Prosecutors didn't pursue the case, apparently to focus on the more serious crime.

He got out of prison in 2000, only to land quickly back behind bars for violating his probation with another drug charge. In September 2004, he was released again.

By December, according to allegations in court documents, McMillon was already re-immersed in a culture of guns and drugs. In the next five months, he would be accused of shooting the same elementary school classmate again as well as a bystander (a jury found him not guilty). He would be implicated in a brutal triple slaying at a halfway house in Remington in January, though those charges were later dropped because of witness problems. And he would be accused - and later convicted - of gunning down Jamel St. Clair.

"I think Corey Mac's been a killer for years," said LaPolla, the prosecutor, in a recent interview. "He was just lucky he hadn't killed someone before. I'm not inclined to give someone points for bad aim."

Many warning signs were there from a young age, according to court documents. His father spent most of his life in prison. When he was out, he was abusive. His mother was a drug addict who mostly raised him on her own. He started drinking and smoking marijuana when he was 13, tried heroin at 14. He dropped out of Patterson Park High School at 16.

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