Is the D.C. sniper a serial killer or a spree killer?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Oct. 17 2002 1:33 PM

Serial Killers and Spree Killers: What's the Difference?

The sniper terrorizing suburban Washington, D.C., has alternately been referred to in the press as a serial killer and a spree killer. What's the difference?

Advertisement

The classic serial killer takes extended breaks between slayings, ranging from weeks to months. Victims usually fit a particular profile, such as prostitutes or elderly women; the former are a favorite target, as their disappearances seldom provoke much alarm from police. Serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, for example, preyed chiefly upon gay hustlers, a community that existed on Milwaukee's fringes. Sex somehow plays into the bulk of serial killings. Victims are often molested, or selected because they strike a dark Freudian chord with the murderer.

Spree killers, on the other hand, pack their mayhem into a brief time span—killing becomes a full-time job, so to speak. The spree is often precipitated by a specific rage-inducing event, such as a romantic breakup or family spat. Loved ones are typically the initial victims; the killer then goes on the lam, slaughtering people along the way without much forethought. These victims do not fit any discernible profile but may be dispatched out of necessity—say, because the killer needs their car. Because of the high-profile, indiscriminate nature of the killings, police attention is intense, and the killer is usually apprehended (or commits suicide) after a few weeks. Andrew Cunanan, who chalked up five murders during a 1997 cross-country trek, is often pointed to as the prototypical spree killer.

The Washington sniper doesn't quite conform to this taxonomy of evil. The frequency of the killings and randomness of the victims suggests that he's a standard spree killer. But he is also confining his activity to one geographic area and premeditating the slayings, two peculiarities that jibe more closely with the serial-killer model.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for Gizmodo. His first book, Now the Hell Will Start, is out now.

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

The World’s Politest Protesters

The Occupy Central demonstrators are courteous. That’s actually what makes them so dangerous.

The Religious Right Is Not Happy With Republicans  

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:58 PM The Religious Right Is Not Happy With Republicans  

The Feds Have Declared War on Encryption—and the New Privacy Measures From Apple and Google

You Might Not Be Crazy if You Think You Can Hear the Earth Humming

These “Dark” Lego Masterpieces Are Delightful and Evocative

Crime

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

Politics

Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Activists Are Trying to Save an Iranian Woman Sentenced to Death for Killing Her Alleged Rapist

Piper Kerman on Why She Dressed Like a Hitchcock Heroine for Her Prison Sentencing

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 2:16 PM Wall Street Tackles Chat Services, Shies Away From Diversity Issues 
  Life
Outward
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 9:39 PM Tom Cruise Dies Over and Over Again in This Edge of Tomorrow Supercut
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?