The case of three teenagers who allegedly killed the mother of one of the suspects in Litchfield, Maine, falls into a rare category of slayings that can be driven by a number of different factors, specialists said Wednesday.
Adolescents who kill their parents generally fall into one of three categories, according to Dr. Ziv Cohen, a past president of the American Society for Adolescent Psychiatry.
Cohen, a forensic psychiatrist who teaches at Cornell University, said one group includes youths who suffer from a severe mental illness. Such offenders, he said, may “develop a delusion about the parent: The parent is the devil, or the devil has gone into the parent. They may even think they’re saving the parent” by murdering them.
These youths are often in the throes of a “severe psychotic episode” when they kill, Cohen said.
A second group, he said, may be involved in crime and drug abuse. These killers demonstrate “an anti-social personality or even psychopathic traits,” he said.
They have “a lack of empathy” and a penchant for impulsive behavior that leads them to “accidentally or purposefully end up killing their parent,” Cohen said.
A third group, Cohen said, includes killers who have suffered severe abuse in the home and “may at some point act out of self-defense” to prevent further harm, Cohen said.
Few details have been released in the slaying of Kimberly Mironovas, 47, who was allegedly killed by her 15-year-old son, Lukas. He’s accused of stabbing her after his friend allegedly choked her while she slept. The third teenager is charged with helping to plan the murder.
The owner of a cosmetology school where Mironovas studied told the Globe Tuesday that Mironovas “was afraid” of her son.
Robert Kinscherff, a faculty member at William James College in Newton who specializes in forensic psychology and juvenile risk assessment, said there are roughly 300 cases nationwide each year of parents who are killed by their adolescent or young adult children.
“Sometimes in families with high family conflict . . . a child may kill one or both parents as an effort to resolve that conflict and to end it,” said Kinscherff, who’s also an attorney and certified juvenile court clinician. “Sometimes [the murder] is done with premeditation; sometimes it is done when the kid is in the middle of this conflict and is incredibly angry and has ready access to a weapon which they choose to use in that moment.”
Kinscherff said the weapon in those circumstances “may be a firearm, or it may be something readily accessible in the house like a knife or a hammer.”
Like Cohen, Kinscherff also cited mental illness and abuse, as well as involvement in a separate “criminal enterprise” as possible factors in the slayings.
“Either because the parents are getting in the way of a criminal enterprise they want to engage in, or they want to criminally victimize their parents — for example, stealing money or other valuables to fund running away from home,” he said.
Kinscherff stressed that although juvenile killers, in general, attract heavy press coverage, the rate of murders and violent crime perpetrated by adolescents has fallen from its peak in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
He attributed the decline to factors including “more coordinated law enforcement responses but also more coordinating of social services and educational responses for higher-risk kids.”
Statistics from the Department of Justice show that between 1980 and 2016, the juvenile murder arrest rate reached a peak in 1993, when nearly 13 out of every 100,000 youngsters between the ages of 10 and 17 were arrested for the crime.
By 2016, the rate of juvenile murder arrests had fallen to 2.6 for every 100,000 youngsters, records show.
“Homicide may be a common outcome for many different trajectories,” Kinscherff said. “Everything ranging from a kid who has some kind of beef with another guy over a girl — you and I might have settled it with a fist-fight, but this kid has a gun in his pocket. That would be a very, very different pattern than a kid who’s killing their abuser or killing somebody as part of a criminal enterprise. There isn’t one sort of lethal violence problem.”
Jack Levin, a criminologist and emeritus professor at Northeastern University, said peer pressure can also be a powerful factor when a group of teens are involved in a murder.
Sometimes, he said, “it only takes one member of a group, someone with a lot of influence and a sadistic mind, to persuade their fellow travelers to go along. They go along to get along. The last thing they want, when they’re 14 or 15, is to be rejected by their friends. They might commit the most hideous murder, simply because it will put them in good graces with their buddies. It’s hard to understand that when you’re not a teenager, but I think there are a lot of cases like that.”
The US Supreme Court in 2012 struck down mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles convicted of murder, ruling the widespread practice violated the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
In a 5-4 vote, the high court ruled that juvenile offenders younger than 18 have “diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform” and that judges should be able to consider the “mitigating qualities of youth” in sentencing, even when juveniles commit heinous crimes.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court went a step further, banning all life-without-parole sentences for juveniles convicted of murder, not just mandatory life-without-parole sentences.
Cohen said Wednesday that while punishment and public safety are important factors to consider in sentencing juvenile killers, rehabilitation should also be a priority.
“It’s definitely important to have them routed to a facility where they can have good mental health care and where, preferably, they are housed with other adolescents,” Cohen said.
Placing teenage killers in adult prisons, he said, is often counterproductive.
“If you take someone like that, who may be on the edge of developing a full-on anti-social personality or psychopathy, you may be just training them to become psychopaths” in the adult prison system, Cohen said. “You want to put them in an environment where they’re not going to strengthen psychopathic behavior.”