July 17, 2007

Did forensic profile go too far?

Psychological profile helped convict teen who maintains his innocence

Police detective Jim Broderick in Fort Collins had set his sights on 15-year-old Tim Masters. He was convinced that the boy had kidnapped, sexually mutilated, and murdered a woman.

No physical evidence tied the boy to the crime. But for years after the 1987 crime went cold, Detective Broderick continued to insist that Masters was the killer.

The detective was haunted by Masters’ oddness during questioning, his collection of survival knives, and the timing of the woman’s death - within a day of the fourth anniversary of the boy's mother's death. But most troubling of all, according to a Denver Post expose on the case, were Masters’ violent sketches. Especially one featuring a blade tearing into a diamond shape.

Finally, in 1995, Broderick telephoned forensic psychologist Reid Meloy and asked him to study Masters' artwork. “Meloy had developed a reputation as an expert witness on sexual homicides,” writes Post reporter Miles Moffeit. “He even disclosed a deeply personal fascination with the subject, according to court testimony, saying he himself had sexually sadistic fantasies.”

Without interviewing Masters, Meloy wrote a damning opinion: Masters fit the profile of a killer because he was a loner who came from an isolated or deprived background and harbored hidden hostility toward authorities as well as violent fantasies. This was a displaced sexual matricide, stemming from Masters' feelings of abandonment by his dead mother. "The killing of Ms. Hettrick translated Tim Masters' grandiose fantasy into reality," Meloy wrote.

Meloy’s profile helped garner a conviction, and in 1999 Masters was sentenced to life in prison.

Now, a legal team has launched what the Post characterizes as “one of the most ambitious and expensive bids ever in Colorado to prove a man's innocence.” The investigation focuses on a sexually deviant medical doctor who lived near the scene of the killing; the doctor committed suicide and police destroyed much of the physical evidence that could have tied him to the crime.

Watch the Denver Post's online video, “The Story of Tim Masters,” which shows details of Masters' interrogations at the hands of police.

My more recent posts on this topic are here, here, and here.

Thanks to Denver forensic psychologist Michael Karson for bringing this case to my attention.