Italian Female Murderers Behind Bars Show Severe Personality Disorders

Paola Giannetakis met the 30 prisoners, who consented to take part in the question-and-answer session.


By Forensic Mag

Women kill less frequently, and most often kill those closest to them, right in their homes.

But a new study of female murderers behind bars in Italy shows the ones who are caught and punished have a slightly higher rate of severe personality disorders than their male killer counterparts, according to a recent paper in the Journal of Forensic Research.

Twenty-four of the 30 prisoners surveyed in prison were diagnosed with a severe personality disorder—either borderline personality disorder, schizotypal personality disorder or paranoid personality disorder.

The examination of the 30 prisoners accounts for a quarter of the 120 women convicted of homicide in the European country. (Females only represent 2 percent of the convicted killers in the country, as opposed to the 10 percent generally seen in other Western countries.)

The author, Paola Giannetakis of the Link Campus University in Rome, met the 30 prisoners, who consented to take part in the question-and-answer session. The technique used was the Millon Clinical Multiaxial Inventory-III, or MCMI-III. That technique is designed to fit within the standard DSM framework, and it involves 175 true-false questions administered over roughly 30 minutes.

The women were between the ages of 21 and 52, they were all white Caucasian, and none had a college degree.

Lining up with other research, nearly all the killers (28) had taken the life of an intimate partner, and most (26) had killed in their own home.

The personality disorders among the group of killers ran the gamut of problematic behaviors.

Thirteen of the women had borderline personality disorder, a condition marked mostly by emotional instability, and distorted self-image of being defective, according to the study. It is particularly marked by impulsivity including self-destructive behaviors like suicide attempts, as well as substance abuse.

Six women had paranoid personality disorder, which is marked by perception of threats and plots against the sufferer that don’t actually exist.

Another five of the killers had schizotypal personality disorder, a condition in which subjects are socially and emotionally detached, including eccentricities in communication like those seen in schizophrenia.

The roughly 80 percent of the relatively small sample size of prisoners is similar to a massive 2002 study looking at serious mental disorders in prison populations. The Lancet study looked at 23,000 prisonersthrough the lens of 62 surveys from 12 countries. The rate of personality disorders among the prison population was 65 percent.

However, other recent studies have confirmed the rate of women having a severe mental disorder at the time of their crimes, as demonstrated in an analysis of 20 years of Swedish homicides published in 2016 in the International Journal of Forensic Mental Health.

But Giannetakis concludes that the vast majority of people with severe personality disorders do not kill. Consequently, the severe personality disorders diagnosed among these women behind bars were just a factor in the homicides.

“The percentage of women who have killed and who do not show signs of pervasive personality disorders demonstrate that personality disorder holds a secondary role and not a causative direct role in the will to kill,” she writes. “Murder is more closely linked to the way relationships are experienced than to personality pathology that instead represents the layout and the frame in which they have evolved and structured over time.”