Violence in their World -- and their Lives -- Focus of UB Undergraduate Honors Class

By Donna Longenecker

Release Date: May 16, 2003 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The scene: A small, well-kept home in a "nice" Buffalo neighborhood. A bright pink, inflatable elephant, a child's toy, lies on its side on the kitchen floor and a small stuffed animal, a white puppy, rests on the living room couch. From the top row of shelves in the dining room, a photo of a woman, the tenant, beams a mega-watt smile.

The kitchen and bathroom are small, but scrubbed spotless, the Buffalo homicide detective points out -- "She was a good housekeeper, a loving mother."

Mark Stambach, the detective, narrates a set of slides that record each portion of the house -- the scene of a double homicide. He describes three separate homicide cases involving four victims. The first -- detailed with the slides -- chronicles the brutal slaying of a mother and her 7-year-old daughter.

Stambach is an invited speaker for "What Did They Die From," an undergraduate honors class at the University at Buffalo taught by Peter Nickerson, professor of pathology.

During the semester, students studied the biographies and deaths of famous people, such as Eleanor Roosevelt (tuberculosis), President William McKinley (gunshot), Karen Carpenter (anorexia) and Arthur Ashe (AIDS), examining the attendant disease processes and disease as a reaction to injury, as well as human suffering.

Students also viewed the videotaped autopsy of a 49-year-old woman who smoked for 20 years, with the goal, in part, to understand why autopsies are performed, why they are important and their role in diagnosis of disease.

The last two sessions of the class focused on violence.

"The two sessions on violence -- the most common cause of death in people their age -- were designed to be directly relevant to them," says Nickerson. "They learned some of the factors influencing violent behavior by their study before the class and then they had the opportunity to interact with experts in the field and to have a discussion with them on issues related to violence."

In addition to the presentation by Stambach, Charles Patrick Ewing, SUNY Distinguished Service Professor in the UB Law School, adjunct professor of psychology and an expert on why children kill, spoke to students about homicide during the next and final section of the course, its legal definition and classifications, and the motive of people who kill.

The shoebox-sized classroom in O'Brian Hall is packed for Stambach's presentation, particularly for the Thursday afternoon before Passover and Easter. Students are jammed against each other; their desks are in a tight circle against the wall and the room is stuffy.

As the homicide detective describes the Buffalo home, he points to a collection of cleaning products strangely dumped in the bathroom sink and a green sponge stained red -- the assailant thought he could wipe away the evidence, says Stambach.

The child's room is neat and colorful, with the requisite cartoon curtains and bedding. However, the sheets and pillowcase have been stripped from the bed. And because the two females lived alone, the raised toilet seat in the bathroom catches Stambach's attention -- and for good reason. The assailant's DNA was all over that toilet, he tells the class.

Stambach's purpose in offering a glimpse into the lives and events leading up to the deaths of these four people? To restore a sense of humanity to death -- to the dead -- and to walk students, step-by-step, through the carefully reconstructed timeline of events and evidence-gathering process used to help solve the crime.

"These victims belong to me -- they become a part of my family until we solve the crime," Stambach says. "Thirty-nine people (relatives) were affected by their deaths," he tells the students.

The detective leads the students, slide by slide, down the hallway and into the mother's bedroom. What the students see first is the body of a small girl who somehow managed, in spite of fatal stab wounds that penetrated her rib cage through to her backside, to die lying across her already-dead mother's feet. This child, the detective notes, tried to defend herself -- she has deep lacerations on the undersides of her arms and her fingers are nearly severed where she grabbed the knife. Her small pink shoes are saturated in blood.

Why is it important to detail, graphically, the events of this story?

Because, as the students have been told by Nickerson and Stambach, they are members of the age group that is more likely to die of violence than any other cause.

Because, as freshman Tom Walsh says, "We have the superman mentality -- we never think it could happen to us. It's important to realize it can happen. You never really step back and think you could be a victim."

The news media only show part of the story -- a static image of the home, the yard cordoned off with crime-scene tape. The reporter may give the victims' names, possible cause of death and potential motive, but that's all.

Everything else about the victim is a statistic, student Zachary Kasperek points out, but this class reveals the opposite -- "that the victim is a real person."

Kasperek says the class has had a major impact on him. "I've never had a class all about us" until now, he says.

Students in the class are asked to critically examine the violence that permeates their culture, their music, the music videos they watch and the video games they play. In their class presentations on these topics, students were never reticent in telling the truth about their culture.

"We need to stand up to the forces that are wrecking our families," says one student at the end of a presentation that noted the goal of most recording companies is to maximize profits by aggressively marketing violent music and videos while hiding behind the First Amendment and subsidiary companies.

"Children who are bombarded with images become desensitized to violence (and) won't have a normal emotional response to violence such as shock, fear or disgust," notes another student during a presentation, citing testimony before Congress by members of the American Academy of Pediatrics about the effects of violence on children.

Ewing presents the facts in a more sobering light.

"The people who kill are often the people most likely to be killed," he tells the students. "Who are they? They're young, people your age -- you are in that big category of people who statistically are more likely to be killed. There aren't too many senior citizens who are victims of murder. The people who murder and the victims of homicide are younger people. Ninety percent of the victims of homicide are men -- almost the same percentage of perpetrators are men," he says.

Students explore, with Ewing's guidance, how murder and homicide are classified. "Intimate killing homicide" is a category in which the victim knows the perpetrator well -- it could be a sibling, girlfriend, wife or husband, or child.

"One of the most common in that category is parents killing their kids," says Ewing, noting that children are extremely vulnerable and the younger they are, the more likely they are to be victims of intimate killing homicide.

Another way to classify homicide, he says, is motive: Why do people kill?

"A lot of homicides that seem to be for economic purposes really aren't -- with the exception of killing Mom or Dad for insurance money. Those are pretty rare," he points out. "More often, the motives are things like jealousy, anger, revenge. They are emotional conditions, and people under those circumstances generally haven't thought out what they're doing. The sort of stereotypical image of a murderer is of a cold-blooded, calculating, hit man who plans it outright, down to the 'nth,' and expects to get away with it.

"A much more common kind of killing is an impulsive killing -- someone who gets into an argument or confrontation and goes and gets a gun or a knife and comes back and suddenly someone is dead," Ewing says. "It's an emotional reaction that's fueling the situation, not cold-blooded calculation."

Nickerson has outlined in the course syllabus many of the questions he views as crucial for the class to answer: For what group of our population is violence the principal cause of death? How common is violence? What groups are especially prone to become victims of violence? How do we prove violence in a court of law? How do we prevent violence? Are there any well-known individuals who have died from violence? Question by question, the students create a statistical, factual picture of a society that in many ways is dangerous, especially for them.

Nickerson, obviously well-liked by his class, is a warm and engaging taskmaster who keeps a close eye on his students -- asking them how they are doing, how they are processing the crime scene photos and the information presented by the detective. He won't allow them to leave class unless he's sure they've had a chance to unload any leftover or unattended emotions related to the disturbing nature of the subject matter. Since the class is long -- meeting for three hours once a week -- he brings lots of snacks for the students to share during breaktime. More than one student praised his teaching style and his ability to listen.

Nickerson allows for ample time for student questions and, in fact, students are required to ask questions.

"My goal is to facilitate discussion and to fill in or correct information without discouraging student participation," he says. "Having bright students who are interested in the subject makes it especially interesting and stimulating for me. I always learn from our discussions.

"I particularly enjoyed working with this class, as I have with previous classes," he notes. "Getting to know their names and something about them is especially important. Paying attention to students as individuals is rewarding for me and I hope for the students."

The information presented by Stambach one week and by Ewing the next is far from glamorous, far removed from popular television crime dramas. This is nothing like "NYPD Blue" or "Law and Order," and although the students already know that, nothing prepares them for the impact, even second-hand, of witnessing the trauma that bodies endure -- especially when attacked with rage. Most victims, like the woman and her young daughter, know their assailants -- their murderer was caught and is serving 32 years to life in prison, says Stambach.

The detective plays a 911 call -- the female caller's voice is amazingly quiet, almost calm. But listeners can hear her voice trembling as she tells the operator that someone is trying to break into her home. Even as the perpetrator is breaking down the door, the woman tries to remain focused. She puts down the phone and tries to reason with the man who now is in her apartment. He is the father of her two children who tells her repeatedly "I love you, I love you. Please give me another chance," and ironically, "I'm really scared right now."

Over and over she tells him to leave in a firm, but loud voice -- she is not screaming at this point. It's almost as if she has been trained by someone to respond this way and knows better than anyone what will set him off. But he refuses to leave, continuing to plead with her. The two children begin to cry nearby and then the screaming starts. The sound of the impact of the weapon, a knife, on the mother's body is audible, blow by blow, until she stops screaming.

In the classroom, the physical closeness now seems a blessing, although no one looks at anyone else -- all eyes are staring at the floor -- and a few faces are flushed. It's a relief when the detective begins to speak again.

"We speak for the dead -- we're a family," Stambach tells the students. "The D.A. (district attorney), the prosecutor, speaks for the dead. We take a journey together. The witness, the deceased, won't be able to tell her story."