When the justice is delayed or denied


The West Memphis Three photographed after their arrest in June 1993 by the West Memphis Police Department.

First aired on Q (22/04/13)

Note: This interview contains explicit language and detailed forensic descriptions. Listener discretion is advised.

John Douglas is one of the most prominent criminal investigators of all time. A pioneer in behavioural analysis and criminal profiling, he pursued, studied and interviewed such notorious murderers as Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, Son of Sam and Jeffrey Dahmer over the course of a career spanning almost 40 years. He's also written a number of bestsellers about murder investigations. His latest book, co-authored with long-time collaborator Mark Olshaker, is Law & Disorder, and it's considered his most controversial yet, because it involves cases in which justice was delayed or denied.


In a recent interview on Q, Douglas explained that he wanted to focus on the miscarriage of justice because after he retired from the FBI, he realized how prone to error investigations could be. "When a case comes in to you, including the investigative reports, the forensic findings, the medical examiner's report, you are under the assumption that everyone has done their job correctly," he told guest host Terry O'Reilly.

But when Douglas was still with the FBI, he would get requests from prisoners claiming to have been been wrongly convicted and asking that he look into their cases. He dismissed these claims at the time but, after retiring in 1995, he started getting cases from defence attorneys as well as prosecutors, and began to see "cases where investigators went in on a case...and let a theory drive an investigation, rather than let the forensics drive them and point them in a direction. And if certain forensics did not fit the theory, they'd discard [the evidence]."

As an example, he cited the JonBenét Ramsey case, in which the FBI and the police thought the parents were involved in the young girl's murder. He said it took him a couple of days to realize that they were "barking up the wrong tree." The investigators were relying on the fact that, statistically, that kind of case usually did involve family. But the forensic evidence suggested otherwise to Douglas.

He also took on the case of the West Memphis Three, in which three teens were convicted of the murder of three boys, who had been tied up and dumped in a bayou. The case was classified as a satanic murder, and the forensics expert believed a knife accounted for the wounds on the boys' bodies. But Douglas reviewed the forensic report, and found that "all three of them died of blunt force trauma and drowning." The wounds, it turned out, were consistent with alligator snapping turtles. The case also relied on the false confession of a defendant who had an IQ of 72.

When Douglas first started doing criminal profiling in the 1970s, it was something new. "No one had gone out into the penitentiaries to interview violent offenders from an investigative perspective," he said. Douglas didn't ask for permission, he just started to do it on his own ("you never ask for permission, you ask for forgiveness if you get caught"). Subsequently, he teamed up with a doctor and they developed a detailed questionnaire focused on victim selection, pre-offence behaviour and post-offence behaviour. Douglas started to see patterns, and then began applying what he had learned in investigations.

By the time he retired, the profiling unit had 12 agents, and dealt with a thousand cases a year. Douglas pointed out that the role of a profiler is "distorted" by the media. He sees the profiler as "a coach": he cited the example of a rape investigation, in which the profiler reviews preliminary reports and advises the police how to conduct the interview with the victim and what to focus on in getting information about the crime. But when it comes to testifying in court, Douglas says that profiling is just an investigative tool and not evidence. "Just because someone fits the characteristics doesn't make him guilty."

In the JonBenét Ramsey case, he declared the parents innocent long before they were exonerated by DNA evidence, based on interviewing the Ramseys and reviewing the forensic findings. Nothing about the parents' behaviour and the nature of the killing fit the pattern. "The police and the FBI were angry as heck at me, but they were leading the investigation by theory...rather than forensics."

Douglas is in favour of the death penalty, but only when it comes to "these premeditated, predatory types of cases that we see," he said. "I've interviewed these kinds of people. There's no remorse. I've said sometimes that I would willingly pull the switch on some of these guys, and I would feel nothing toward them."

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