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Monday, January 25, 2010

Sociopath alert: Raynella Dossett Leath

Sometimes you read about someone and are left wondering whether the person is a sociopath. And sometimes there's no doubt.

The article in the NY Times yesterday about Raynella Dossett Leath was one of the latter. You wouldn't know from the picture that she was a cold-blooded killer, but that's the way it usually is with sociopaths. Raynella bears a slight resemblance to Glenn Close (who, come to think of it, played a pretty scary sociopath herself in Fatal Attraction). She also has that generic middle school principal look that women tend to get if they're ever so slightly masculine, well dressed, and cut their hair short when they reach middle age.

Leath is accused of murdering both her husbands. It's pretty clear she is guilty on both counts.

In 1992, Leath's first husband, Knoxville District Attorney Ed Dossett was killed by what was supposedly a domestic cattle stampede. According to Raynella, Dossett, who was terminally ill with cancer at the time, had asked to be taken to see his dairy cows in his wheelchair. Then somehow his wheelchair got overturned in the midst of the cattle pen and he was trampled. The autopsy showed traumatic injuries consistent with hooves. But the coroner said those injuries weren't life-threatening, and that Dossett had so much morphine in his system that it would have been impossible for him to function. Speculation arose that Raynella may have killed him in order to commit insurance fraud, though she wasn't prosecuted at the time.

Three years after Mr. Dossett's death, Raynella found out that he may have had another son with a woman who worked in his office. The Times account:

In the midst of a divorce, the woman told her husband, Steve Walker, that one of their two sons was actually fathered by Mr. Dossett and he told Ms. Dossett Leath. Ms. Dossett Leath soon lured Mr.Walker to a barn on her farm, telling him she had found some papers related to the child. Once there, she opened fire on him, according to his account, and chased him across the hayfields until she ran out of ammunition. According to Mr. Walker's statement to the police, she said she would kill him and the child's mother, and raise the child herself. Ms. Dossett Leath was charged with attempted murder, but pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and did six years of "diversion," a form of probation. Then, the charge was expunged.

Raynella's second husband, David Leath, whom she had married six months after Dossett's death, was found dead of a gunshot wound in his own bed in 2003. Raynella said it was a suicide, but eventually she was charged with murder. Firearms experts have testified that of the three shots fired from the gun which killed Mr. Leath, it was the second one which killed him. The first trial ended in a hung jury (because of one dissenting juror) earlier this year, and the second trial has just started. (Her trial for the murder of her first husband, which she has recently been charged with, is slated to start in August.)

Women who are multiple murderers are generally just sociopaths who kill for financial reasons. Serial killers, who are almost exclusively men, usually have a sexual motivation for their crimes. (In the world of a sociopath, your life is worth less than his orgasm.) Women don't kill for sexual reasons. (Vive la difference!)

The closest thing this country has had to a female serial killer was Aileen Wuornos, who was executed in Florida in 2002. She was a prostitute who shot her customers so she could rob them. Most male serial killers don't shoot their victims; they prefer a much more hands on method, like strangling, or knifing, or possibly bludgeoning. There is much more sensual pleasure to be derived from watching (and feeling) someone die slowly, up close, than from shooting someone from a distance. There have been serial killers who have shot their victims, such as the Beltway Snipers; but they are the exception.

But just because Raynella didn't get a sexual thrill from killing doesn't mean that she was any less of a sociopath.

To me, the most interesting thing about sociopaths is what made them turn out that way. What were their parents like? Did they even know their parents? Exactly how were they abused when young? There is often an appalling story there. I'm guessing that one of the formative influences in Ms. Dossett Leath's life was a father disappointed that she wasn't a boy. Raynell is not a common name, at least among whites, but I have heard it before. I've never heard of a Raynella though, and I'm guessing that whoever named her had wanted a boy he could have named Raynell.

Raynella's lawyer, James Bell, claims that Raynella loved her husband (Mr. Leath) and couldn't possibly have killed him: "If you believe Miss Raynella murdered him, you have to believe she is nothing but a serpent of Satan."

That's a pretty good description of a sociopath. (It also makes it sound as if Raynella is even lying to her lawyer, the kind of thing you would expect a habitually dishonest sociopath to do.)


Anonymous said...

The question of the influence of upbringing vs. innate personality is interesting. At a more mundane level, I have noticed very different degrees of empathy exhibited by my kids, nieces and nephews as little kids. One wonders how their environment might develop or stifle it.

It's pretty clear to me though that the leaders on Wall St lost out entirely on the empathy gene.


Anonymous said...

I'm also now wondering whether, if there is a sociopathy gene, or genetic defect, we can develop a test for it. And if so, how society would use that information. Real world Minority Report?

At least it would let people know early on that they are highly suited to careers in politics or investment banking.


John Craig said...

Guy -- My impression is that although the field of psychology is moving towards a neurobiological/ genetic explanation for most other personality traits such as shyness or intelligence, sociopathy seems to be largely determined by upbringing. It sounds corny, but a lot of it has to do with whether or not a child establishes a solid bond with another human being in the first year of life, i.e., how much the child is loved. This is why orphanages produce so many sociopaths.

The one "genetic" component seems to be primarily hormonal: men are roughly three times more likely than women to be sociopaths. The theory here is that because men have more testosterone, and are more aggressive, and are more fearless, they are harder to socialize, and less receptive to normal social stimuli (and feelings of guilt, etc.)

And yes, you're absolutely right, Wall Street and Washington DC have way more than their share of sociopaths.

Liz said...

According to a document I read that a federal task force on serial killers put out, it's a myth that all serial killers are white men. Watching the ID channel, they have programs specifically about women who murder and a fair number of them are guilty of multiple murders. And they have a variety of reasons, it's not always about money. It can be about jealousy or due to mental illness like postpartum depression.

John Craig said...

Liz --
You're absolutely right about how it's a myth that serial killers are all white men; blacks are well represented among serial killers as well. As far as women murderers, yes, jealousy can lead to murder and post partum depression can lead to all sorts of crazy behavior. But neither of those two things is likely to necessarily result in serial killing. And while someone who kills out of jealousy is likely to be a sociopath, someone who kills because she is driven crazy by post partum depression is more likely to be just psychotic, temporarily or otherwise. I characterized leash as a multiple murderer, which isn't necessarily the same thing as a serial killer. She seems to have killed her first husband for financial gain, attempted the murder of another man because of jealousy, and I'm not sure why she killed her second husband. But there's not enough of a pattern there to call it serial killing; the one thing that is clear is that she's a sociopath.

Unknown said...

I don't think she was born to a farmer, her dad was scientist at Oak Ridge...a whole other story back in the '40s.