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Sunday, July 27, 2003

Why do parents kill their children?

By Margot LeSage
Staff Writer

As New Hampshire and the nation grapple with the question of why a seemingly devoted father would kill his own children, experts offer a range of possible explanations.

If Manuel A. Gehring did kill his two children, he may have been trying to get back at his former wife, or may have thought his children were better off dead. Or he may have just "snapped" under the emotional stress of losing a job and enduring a bitter divorce and custody battle, they say.

But psychologists caution that there's no simple theory or answer behind the crime, and until Gehring speaks, no one will know for sure what really happened to Sarah and Philip Gehring.

Gehring has been charged with two counts of first-degree murder for allegedly shooting his children, a crime to which he has pleaded innocent. Their bodies have not been recovered.

Jack Levin, director of the Brudnick Center on Violence at Northeastern University and author of a number of books on murder, said there are two underlying reasons why Manuel Gehring may have killed his children: One, he wanted to protect them; or two, out of the rage and anger he may feel toward his ex-wife.

"When I hear friends, neighbors and relatives talk about what a protective father he was, and how responsible he was and that this is out of character, I think he may have been motivated by a perverted sense of love, loyalty and protection," he speculated. "Given the circumstances surrounding the divorce and the custody battle ... he decided that his children were better off leaving this world and going to a better world in the hereafter. He thought he was doing something fatherly by protecting his children from this miserable existence."

Levin added that, usually, when fathers feel this way and decide to take their children's lives, they also decide to kill themselves. However, Levin noted that it's much easier to kill others than to kill oneself.

For example, Susan Smith, the South Carolina mother found guilty of killing her children when she strapped her two young boys in their car seats and pushed the car into a lake in 1994, most likely intended to kill herself, as well, Levin said, but couldn't go through with it.

The second reason why Gehring may have killed his children, Levin added, is he may have believed himself a "victim of injustice." Levin pointed out that Gehring had lost his job, was not awarded full custody of his children and had recently gone through a divorce. "He may have blamed his wife for his personal problems and decided to get even with her," Levin said. He added that Gehring may even have suspected the children of being involved in a plot against him, perhaps siding with their mother in the custody battle. Children, Levin said, are often viewed as the extension of the ex-spouse.

Whichever the reason, Levin said, it's "very unlikely" Gehring suffered from psychosis. He may have some mental illness, but not "so severe it would make him insane in a court of law," Levin said.

"The question for the court is whether he knew the difference between right or wrong and whether he knew he did something wrong," he added.

Gehring's attempted escape makes Levin believe that the father was behaving rationally and that he didn't just "snap."

"He killed two children in such a hideous act that the jury will feel that someone has to pay, and who else is there?" Levin said. "If it was more indiscriminate of a killing spree, then it would be more likely insanity would be involved. (Gehring) knew the difference between right and wrong and he chose to do wrong.

"It's a hideous murder, a hideous crime," Levin continued. "It's hard for people to understand the motivation. But, from the killer's point of view, it makes a lot of sense. He was so miserable or suffering so profoundly that he wanted to spare his children the same fate. After the fact he might have felt more convinced he did the right thing. If you're looking for remorse you may not find it."

The Gehring case differs from other parental murder cases, Levin said, because usually the parent will have a "temper tantrum" and become violent. The crime wasn't intended and afterward the person feels remorse. Gehring, Levin said, appeared to have been "very much in control" and allegedly executed this murder "very methodically," perhaps thinking of killing his children days or weeks earlier.

Levin said women are more likely to kill someone they know, such as a family member, although 90 percent of all murders are committed by men. According to a study by the Journal of Family Violence, 63 percent of all parental homicides of children between the ages of 13 and 18 are committed by fathers.

"When women kill, they are more likely to kill people they know well, especially family members, especially their own children," Levin said. He said women tend to spend more time caring for their children than men do, therefore are more apt to have disputes with their children. "It's not premeditated (with women). "Women lose their temper and explode into a violent act."

When men kill members of their own family, Levin continued, they more often kill more than one person and they are less likely to be psychotic.

"Chances are he doesn't think he's killing gophers or killing his children to prevent earthquakes or to execute demons," Levin said. Men are much more likely to commit a "premeditated act of murder," Levin continued.

Dr. Rick B. Silverman, a fellow of the American Board of Forensic Examiners who has a practice in Plaistow, N.H., agreed with Levin that some people who take their children's lives do so because they feel their children would be better off dead.

He said if Gehring has an undiagnosed mental illness, he wouldn't automatically be ruled insane by a jury. He said the mental illness would have to be so profound that he would be unable to use any kind of reasoning to convince himself that murder was wrong.

"The fact that someone has a belief doesn't make them insane," Silverman said. "To be insane you have to not be able to use the power of reason or judgment."

But not everyone feels that Gehring's actions were planned and calculated.

Linda Dunlap, chairman of the psychology department at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., said she believes Gehring felt overwhelmed by his family situation and wanted to spare his children from the horrors of life, and may have also harbored resentment and anger toward his ex-wife.

"Maybe he felt overwhelmed by the responsibility he was given, financially or emotionally, and although he thought it was still best that the children would be with him, he realized it was not a workable situation," Dunlap said. "Maybe he really planned to take his own life, but couldn't do it."

While Dunlap feels Gehring may have thought about the idea of killing his children, the actual murder itself was a sign that he just "snapped." She said it's "totally inconceivable" for a parent to take the life of his own child without the possibility the person lost his mind.

"There's got to be a level of mental instability," Dunlap said. "For a parent who had just gone through a custody situation and still really thought his children should be dead ... there is something very much psychologically amiss here for anyone to do this. A person has to be mentally unstable to do this, period."

She added just because he got in the car after the murder -- allegedly with his dead children in the back -- and drove cross-country, doesn't mean he was thinking rationally or even mentally stable during his cross-country excursion.

Dunlap noted that as a society people don't want to think Gehring was insane because then we'd essentially be "letting him off the hook" for a horrific crime.

Dr. Jan Nealer, a marriage and family therapist who has a private practice in Newburyport, Mass., also believes Gehring became a victim of too many pressures piled up on him at once. His recent job loss -- something that usually impacts men more than women -- is just one of many pressures he had to deal with.

"To me he wasn't in a good space," Nealer said. "He sure wasn't stable."

She also finds it unusual that he is still alive and notes that while he's not saying much, he does look remorseful.

Nealer said because of his silence, she's not sure whether he "just snapped" or if he planned the murders. She said society, however, would hope that this nice, quiet father did "just snap" and did not have a cruel and vindictive nature.

As a family therapist, Nealer has worked with abusive parents. She said the parents don't start their day looking forward to harming their children. In fact, they don't plan it at all and often feel sad after they've lashed out at their children.

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