About Me

My photo
I'm a Sociology Professor at the University of Toronto. I write about gun violence, health disparities, and Hip Hop culture. When I'm not doing research, I like pop-locking, swimming, and learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. This is my first blog. I hope you like it.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

A Serial Killer on the Dating Game: Some Sociological Reflections

I recently watched Louis Theroux's BBC documentary, "A Place for Paedophiles."  The documentary takes place at Coalinga State Hospital, a hospital for pedophiles who have completed their prison terms but haven't been able to transition back into society.  While many maintain that they are "cured," the vast majority are stuck in an institutional limbo because they cannot find housing. As convicted pedophiles, most are subject to complicated laws that prohibit them from moving into areas that are close to schools; some face hostile neighborhood associations that do not want a pedophile in their midst; and others are still aware of their urges and do not trust themselves.  This means that most will spend the rest of their lives incarcerated, even though they are all technically "free men" under the law.  

The documentary is quite disturbing and provocative, simply because it challenges one's ideas about how the criminal justice system works and the rights of convicted offenders.  As a good journalist, Theroux doesn't really take a side in this story.  At some points, he challenges inmates who claim to be cured, but still show behavior that says otherwise.  At other points, he describes the sad reality for most men in Coalinga; they will in all likelihood live out the rest of their days in this hospital because nobody wants them as a neighbor or tenant.

Rodney Alcala aka the "Dating Game Killer"
Today, while taking a break from writing, I perused Youtube and stumbled upon a very creepy story that also plays off the aforementioned documentary.

Rodney Alcala, aka the "Dating Game Killer," appeared on the Dating Game in the midst of a serial killing spree in California.  When he was invited on the show as a bachelor, Alcala was already a convicted rapist and sex offender.  He would eventually win a date with bachelorette, Cheryl Bradshaw (below in video), who later refused a date with him because he seemed "creepy."  Here is a short video of his appearance on the show.  It's pretty eery.

Alcala was eventually arrested and convicted for the murder of Robin Samsoe--a 12 year old girl that he abducted, raped, and murdered.  Police found her decomposing body in the LA foothills several days after her disappearance.  His death penalty was overturned because jurors were improperly informed of his sex offending history.  He was found guilty in a retrial, but had this case overturned because of discredited witnesses.

He was eventually arrested and convicted on 5 counts of murder and received the death penalty.  This happened, however after a long career in serial killing.  Although there is no official body count, homicide investigators estimate that Alcala killed between 50-130 women.  Police would later seize a collection of photos that Alcala had shot himself.  Many of the photos are sexually suggestive in nature and feature young women and children.  There is a gallery of these (that are PG or PG-13) online.

I guess these two stories highlight core issues at stake when we debate the rights of pedophiles and sex offenders.  On one hand, Theroux's documentary reveals a grossly unfair "institutional limbo" that awaits pedophiles who can't find housing in the "outside world."  Their situation challenges our larger beliefs in the efficacy of the criminal justice system; if someone does their time, they should have the right to move on with their lives.

At the same time, stories from Theroux's documentary and certainly Rodney Alcala's case highlight the fear that many have against ever allowing pedophiles and sex offenders back into the general public.  These stories seem to provide a rationale about the need for increasing surveillance and restricting the rights of registered pedophiles and sex offenders (who by most clinical accounts are all serial offenders).

In the end, I don't really know how to feel.  I feel conflicted on this.  How do you all feel?  Should our society increase the surveillance of pedophiles and sex offenders?  Do the repeated crimes of some, warrant the upsurge in surveillance of a group deemed highly likely to reoffend?  What does all of this say about our criminal justice system?

1 comment:

  1. Historically, institutionalized prison systems have always dealt with the dilemma of rehabilitation and retribution. It’s hard to gauge the actual likelihood on pedophiles’ repeating behaviors, but it's assumed that sexual attraction to children will always be innately part of the offender. It also depends on how we categorize and judge the degree of moral offense the sex offenders had been convicted for. Do we trust in the rehabilitation of sexual predators? Does the crime fit the lifelong punishment of stigmatization even after serving the given sentence?

    This reminds me of an episode in season 2 of OZ where a Catholic priest turned himself in for giving in to temptation once. He fondled a young boy and was immediately filled with guilty. As long as he stayed away from children, it seems likely that he can live a reformed life. There are rare cases where a lifelong, publicized pedophile label seems unfair. Then you have someone like Albert Fish who murdered, tortured, and raped young boys. Pedophilia is perceived as one of the most despicable crimes, but there is still a gradient of how severe the offense was and the likelihood of rehabilitation. Ultimately they were caught and convicted with a terrible crime and at best should be treated within context and by case (was it premeditated, is this a repeated offense, what was the degree of suffering, was the act done from a position of power, or was there incest). Personally, I think the crime fits the punishment for repeat offenders, but maybe for some of the specific, rare cases, the label can be reserved for only background checks. I personally don’t believe in the rehabilitation of pedophiles in general, but I’d like to still see an option for the exceptions in our system.