Alesha killer’s doctor criticised over psychopath screening suggestion
A doctor has faced criticism after suggesting young children should be screened for psychopathic behaviour in the wake of the Alesha MacPhail murder.
Dr John Marshall, head of forensic clinical psychology services at the State Hospital’s board for Scotland, argued certain behavioural traits can be found in children as young as five.
These traits can include being cruel to animals or their peers, being hurtful, lying constantly and being distant from their parents.
Dr Marshall was one of the psychologists who assessed 16-year-old Aaron Campbell, who was sentenced last month to a minimum of 27 years in prison for murdering the six-year-old last July.
In an article for The Scotsman he suggested early intervention could be key to “divert budding psychopaths and make sure what happened to poor Alesha never happens again”.
Speaking to the Press Association, he revealed he had expected a backlash to the suggestion.
Dr Marshall said: “One colleague has really criticised me saying I should never say you can identify psychopaths under five and I agree with that – you can’t.
“But there are temperamental risk factors which increase the likelihood or probability of heading on that pathway. That’s different.
“What I’m arguing for is that we are better at assessing those risk factors.
“A lot of professionals involved in child mental health have real issues with this stuff – you would dare describe a child at five as having callous and unemotional traits, such a terrible thing to say, you’re damning them with that label.
“But my argument is if we ignore that and don’t support families who have children like that then we’re taking huge risks, huge gambles.
“To be criticised so heavily so heavily for that, it just seems like I’m saying what’s blatantly obvious.”
In the article he calls it a “major public health issue” and likened the idea of tackling it to how obesity is perceived.
Dr Marshall said: “If you’ve got a problem with obesity at 16 you can track that back to over-eating and earlier obesity and so on, it’s kind of obvious you can track things backwards.
“I think there’s a misunderstanding that I’m sort of saying you can identify psychopaths much earlier on.
“I’m not saying that, I’m saying you can identify children at risk.”
He added: “Genetic factors are important, temperament is important, I think we’re not paying enough attention to those other factors.
“It could also be a relief for parents to know that – parents might feel that they’re blamed for their child’s early temperament.
“If we come to the conclusion those temperamental traits are present then those families will be issued with support around parenting, they’ll need longer term support.”
Campbell snatched Alesha from her bed as she slept at her grandparents’ home on the Isle of Bute and finally admitted his crime in a psychological report prepared ahead of his sentencing in March.
Dr Marshall also pointed out “you don’t become a psychopath on your 16th birthday” and said the traits were “entrenched and chronic” by that age.
Lord Matthews, sentencing Campbell at the High Court in Glasgow last month, said social work and psychologist reports “had painted a clear picture of a cold, callous, calculating, remorseless and dangerous individual”.
He said the teenager had shown a “staggering lack of remorse” and told him: “Not once did I detect a flicker of emotion from you”.
In the psychologists’ report, Campbell also described his reaction to seeing Alesha as “a moment of opportunity”.
When asked about Campbell, Dr Marshall said: “It’s rare for sadistic rapes and murders to take place generally speaking but people who are much older – I’m talking older teenagers – who have got psychopathic traits might be much more involved in a lot more offending than other offenders.
“They might be involved in different types of offending as well – sexual and violent offending, robbery etc – so it might be more varied.
“They might be much more engaged in bullying and coercive control of victims.
“It’s highlighted because of the extreme nature of it but that type of murder is so rare.”