Holocaust Museum Shooting Suspect's Age Bucks Trends in Elderly Violence Rates

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 13, 2009

In some ways, the most striking thing about the shooting at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is the fact that the accused gunman is an octogenarian. The elderly are the least violent people in American society, federal crime statistics show, being just a little more likely to commit homicide than preteens.

There were 17,040 homicides listed by the FBI in 2007, the most recent year for which complete statistics are available. People 65 and older committed 156 of those slayings, or just under 1 percent. By contrast, teenagers ages 13 to 16 -- just a four-year bracket -- committed more than triple that amount. The only age group that committed fewer homicides than the elderly were children 12 and younger.

James Wenneker von Brunn, the 88-year-old man who allegedly shot and killed guard Stephen T. Johns at the Holocaust Museum, is the oldest homicide defendant in recent memory in the District, according to the U.S. attorney's office. The agency does not keep records of defendants based on age, but a spokesman said an informal poll of prosecutors and detectives did not turn up any defendants past their 70s.

"No one has heard of someone this age," said Benjamin Friedman, special counsel for the agency.

Criminologists said the shooting was so unusual that it is not even an area of study. "I don't know of any study of older offenders," said Louis B. Schlesinger, professor of forensic psychology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "There would be no reason to target older people as offenders" because they are such a minuscule part of the criminal population, he said.

It does happen, of course. Frank Spillman, 94, was charged last year with killing his landlord in Oakland, Calif. Lena Driskell was 79 in 2006 when she was charged with shooting her 85-year-old ex-boyfriend. Both were living in a senior citizens' high-rise in Atlanta when she discovered he was dating another woman.

But the FBI statistics bear out what psychologists and psychiatrists routinely say: Stereotypes about grumpy old men aside, men (and women, who commit about 10 percent of all homicides) become less violent for every year they live after age 25.

In men, surging testosterone levels, coupled with the relative immaturity of the brain's frontal lobes (the brain's executive center, which inhibits impulses), push homicidal violence to a peak between the ages of 17 to 24. Men in that age range were charged with 4,738 homicides in 2007. As in years past, this was by far the highest category.

For each five-year period thereafter, people committed fewer slayings, a steadily descending staircase of violence. By the senior years, a "wisdom of living" has settled in, said neuropsychiatrist Richard Restak, in which violence is rarely considered.

"The outbursts of anger, stemming from the amygdala, are fewer, and are more easily controlled by the frontal lobe," said Restak, a Washington-based researcher who has published 19 books on the inner workings of the brain. "There's a mellowing that usually takes place."

When impulse control is lost in later years, it's either very minor -- think of the elderly complaining loudly about poor service or waiting in line -- or is it often a sign of deterioration in the frontal lobe, said Naftali Berrill, director of the New York Center for Neuropsychology and Forensic Behavioral Science, a private consulting firm that often works on mental evaluations in criminal cases.

"There's also an evolutionary reason why people become less violent in their later years. Physical frailty makes it hard to engage in aggressive acts. You're more easily wounded. The elderly can't compete, physically, with the younger and stronger, so they don't," said Berrill.

Restak and Berrill were careful to say they were not speaking about von Brunn. But they noted that in general practice, the early stages of mental deterioration are first looked at as a cause for violent outbursts by the elderly. Restak notes that about 5 percent of the population shows signs of early-stage dementia at age 65, and that the percentage doubles every five years thereafter.

"The frontal lobe can be terribly compromised" by dementia-related illnesses, Berrill said. "They'll urinate on the wall, or lash out at someone for no real reason. They can't access the frontal lobe and reason things out anymore. Then you see much more aggressive, impulsive behavior."

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