Posted on | November 11, 2012 | 4 Comments
Professor Ann Althouse questions the timing of what she calls “an elaborately worked-out invitation into the mind of the rapist that expects us to care about his struggle to understand himself.”
As an aficionado of “true crime” stories, I find the Washington Post article by Josh White fascinating in the same way I was fascinated by Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter (about the Manson family) or Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Both of those famous stories illustrate a phenomenon that gets too little attention in our understanding of crime, namely how often the grisly atrocities that make national headlines are committed by petty criminals who, having gotten away with minor offenses (or following their release from prison) step up their anti-social behavior to ever-more serious crime.
This is what we might call escalating recidivism, and the story of the “East Coast Rapist,” Aaron Thomas, shows that Thomas had many common characteristics of such criminals, including a fractured family background and an early tendency toward impulsive misconduct:
Aaron Hajj-Malik Thomas was born in August 1971; his father was a D.C. police officer and his mother a career Geico employee. His middle name honored Malcolm X. He grew up with a half brother and a half sister, but he was the only biological son of Donald B. Thomas, whom most everyone called “Big Don.”
Big Don and his son had a particularly rough relationship, according to relatives. Thomas recalls beatings with a thick police-uniform belt and his father slamming him into walls. Family members described screaming matches and constant turmoil.
“When we were both small, my father was a strict disciplinarian. Very strict,” said Michael Battle, Thomas’s older brother. “You didn’t do anything out of sorts or it was hell to pay. When we started to fight back in our way, problems started. With Aaron, it seemed to go way down a rabbit hole. It went further.”
Living in a home with two working parents, an emphasis on education, meticulous order and no one wanting for anything, Thomas was at once the family comedian and alarmingly unpredictable. . . .
“From day one, he’s had a control problem,” Battle said. “Odd behavior. Couldn’t control his temper. It was thing after thing after thing after thing.” . . .
The entire article is nearly 7,000 words long and worth reading if, like me, you have an interest in the psychology of criminality.
Thomas’s lack of impulse control manifested itself at an early age and we read that “he stole a bicycle as a teenager,” got into fights and, at age 20, “he was arrested three times for cocaine possession and was placed on probation.” Thomas was a sort of trouble magnet, and was shot in 1992 the day before he was scheduled to testify against the suspect in a robbery. His career as a serial rapist reportedly began around the same time, when he raped a prostitute in D.C. Thomas’s ex-girlfriends describe him as controlling, jealous and sometimes violent. His criminal career eventually culminated in the 2010 rape of three teenage girls who were trick-or-treating in suburban Woodbridge, Virginia.
Now, Aaron Thomas is likely to be sentenced to multiple life sentences, his evil acts having scarred the lives of more than a dozen victims. There’s probably some lesson to be learned here. To me, it relates to the “broken windows” theory of crime prevention: The petty criminal — the burglar, the thief, the minor dope dealer — is potentially capable of serious crime. The defiant anti-social personality who finds himself able to get away with petty crime will tend to develop an arrogant contempt for the law, which leads to the pattern of escalating recividism. Thus, more stringent enforcement of laws against relatively minor offenses will ultimately tend to reduce the number of serious offenses.