With each mass shooting like those in recent weeks, there is a familiar cycle. Just after the thoughts and prayers, and before the “never again,” we seek to understand why.
The idea of motive for murder is central to both how crimes are prosecuted and how we the public understand them. But the concept often falls short in providing an explanation of why the killer decided to do what he did.
Consider a horrific murder closer to home — the killing of Florida State University law professor Dan Markel in 2014, revisited the past few weeks through the trial of co-conspirator Katie Magbanua.
Prosecutors’ story of Magbanua’s motive was easy enough: money. But the prosecutors also had to explain the motive for those who hired her — the family of Markel’s ex-wife Wendi Adelson, specifically her brother Charlie and mother Donna, who prosecutors say led the conspiracy.
The state pointed to the Adelsons’ “desperate desire” for Wendi and her kids to relocate to South Florida, and fear of Markel’s motion to limit Donna’s unsupervised visits with her grandkids. There is lots of evidence for these motives, and the jury should hear about them again when Charlie is tried.
But do you really commit murder because you want your daughter (or sister) to live closer, or you can’t stand the idea of not being able to babysit your grandkids?
Another kind of explanation relies less on reason and more on pathology. And judging by their behavior leading up to the murder, narcissism appears to be an Adelson family trait. Experts say that when narcissists’ idealized self-image is threatened, they can get unreasonably angry. It’s called “narcissistic rage.”
Donna Adelson saw herself as a wonderful mother and grandmother. But when she was called out publicly by Markel for her egregious behavior in trashing him to his kids, the illusion was shattered, and the rage kicked in. Wendi said that Dan told her he was “the only one who knew the truth about what a bad person I was.”
Charlie thought his younger sister Wendi looked up to him. But she married someone more like their older brother Rob and father Harvey – academically inclined, successful professionals who Charlie had been rebelling against all his life.
If Dan threatened Charlie’s sense of self, murdering him was an act of self-actualization – a chance to be the criminal mastermind, “The Maestro” as he called himself, and a hero for the family.
Narcissistic rage is a much better explanation for this unthinkable murder, but it does not fit the concept of motive – the idea of a reason for an action that (for the killer) brings about a desired change in the world.
The good news is that we often don’t need to understand motives for murder to make it less likely and to have a justice system committed to “moral accountability for unlawful actions,” as the retributive justice scholar Markel put it.
The hired help are all convicted. And with Charlie Adelson’s arrest, let retributive justice for the narcissists begin.
Jason Solomon is a founder of Justice for Dan Markel, and a former law professor at the University of Georgia. He is currently an attorney and educator based in California.
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This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Can motives really explain the Dan Markel murder? | Opinion