What's the Difference Between a Killer's Signature and M.O.?

iStock/fergregory
iStock/fergregory

True crime shows, documentaries, and podcasts are everywhere these days, not to mention all the crime-focused movies and TV shows—like NBC's Law & Order: SVU, CBS's CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, and Netflix's Mindhunter. And you've probably heard terms like signature and M.O. being thrown around a lot without much explanation as to what they mean, or how they're different.

If you're confused about the difference between them, well, you’re not alone. As former FBI agent and behavioral analyst John Douglas notes in his book Mindhunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit (which the Netflix series is based on), "Both [signature and modus operandi] are extremely important concepts in criminal investigations analysis, and I have spent many hours on witness stands of courtrooms throughout the country trying to get judges and juries to understand the distinction between them."

Douglas, who was recently in New York to promote his new book, The Killer Across the Table: Unlocking the Secrets of Serial Killers and Predators with the FBI's Original Mindhunter, out now, helped break down the difference between signature and M.O. for us.

M.O. stands for Modus Operandi, and, according to Douglas, it's a learned, dynamic behavior. "When a criminal starts perpetrating crimes, if something doesn't go right, he's got to perfect the M.O.," he tells Mental Floss. "He's got to get it better and better." In other words, unless an offender executes the perfect crime his first time out, he'll continue to tweak his M.O. as he goes. The method of committing the crime is modified for success. That's why, Douglas says, "you shouldn't link cases together strictly by modus operandi. … You don't do that because those characteristics could fit people that have nothing to do with the case as well."

But what you can use to link crimes together is an offender's signature, a term that Douglas says he coined. "A signature is a ritual—something [that] is done that is not necessary to perpetrate that particular crime," he says. "The signature is the ritual that is unique to the offender, and that's what you're looking for."

To demonstrate what he means, Douglas uses sports as an example. "It's like a baseball batter [who], before a ball comes in, does rituals," like touching his hat or cleats. "Or shooting a basketball: bounce it three times, [do a certain move], take the shot. It's not necessary to get it in the hoop or hit the ball, but in his mind he's got to do it. He's got to do it this way."

In Mindhunter, Douglas acknowledges that "the differences between M.O. and signature can be subtle." To demonstrate just how subtle, he compares two robbery cases. Both robbers made their captive undress; one "posed them in sexual positions, and took photographs of them" while the other did not take photos.

The latter made his hostages undress "so the eyewitnesses would be so preoccupied and embarrassed that they wouldn't be looking at him and so couldn't make a positive ID later on," Douglas writes. That's an example of M.O. The former robber is an example of a signature, because it wasn't something the offender had to do to rob the bank—and actually put him at risk of being caught, because he was in the bank longer. "It was something he clearly felt a need to do," Douglas writes.

Because the signature is unique to the offender, Douglas says that you can use it in trials: "A case in Washington state, the subject was posing the victims after he killed [them]. And all that was allowed for me to testify to."

There's one challenge with signatures, though. "You can only see it when it starts showing up in repetitive crimes," Douglas says. "You can't look at a single case and say, 'Oh, this was the signature.' Say the victim is posed—that may end up being the signature, but you've got to compare it to something, later on."

As criminology professor Scott A. Bonn, Ph.D., points out in a post for Psychology Today, "While every crime has an M.O., not all crimes have a signature." Now, whether you're listening to a true crime podcast or watching an episode of Mindhunter, you'll know the difference.

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What Happens if the Electoral College Ties?

Photo by Element5 Digital from Pexels
Photo by Element5 Digital from Pexels

If there is a tie in the Electoral College, the race for president gets sent to the House of Representatives, where the top three candidates are decided by each state’s delegation as a statewide block. As a state, the representatives decide on a candidate to vote for and, after much politicking, one candidate eventually gets a majority of states and becomes president. For vice presidents it’s a little simpler: it’s only the top two candidates, each senator gets a vote, and whoever gets the majority of Senate votes wins.

Now that that’s been dealt with, how did we get to this odd scenario? And are there any ways that it can be made odder?

A LITTLE BACKGROUND

First, as a matter of clarification, the result in November is just a guideline; the real action is in December, when the Electoral College votes. While it would be a political crisis if the Electoral College completely disregarded the will of the people, it’s not impossible. Only around half of the states plus Washington, D.C. have laws that explicitly say an elector has to vote for their state’s winning candidate. And among those states the laws vary wildly.

In North Carolina, for example, failure to vote for the correct candidate results in a $500 fine and the elector is automatically removed, doesn’t have a vote recorded, and a new elector is put in place. In New Mexico, it’s a fourth-degree felony for an elector to vote for a different candidate, but there’s no provision for canceling the vote. And Ohio just has it as a vague "it’s illegal." The Supreme Court has never ruled on the constitutionality of these restrictions, as it has never really mattered and electors tend to be party faithful anyway. But for the following scenarios, it’s important to keep in mind:

Our current system is the result of the 12th Amendment, which grew out of the disastrous election of 1800. Article II of the Constitution says that each elector needs to cast two votes and the candidate with the most electoral votes wins, while second place gets the vice presidency. In 1800, the Federalist Adams/Pinckney ticket was up against the Democratic-Republicans’ Jefferson/Burr. The Federalists recognized the inherent problem with the then-current rules and gave one electoral vote to John Jay (who wasn’t even a candidate), so that Adams would have one more vote than Pinckney. However, the victorious Democratic-Republicans messed that part up and gave Jefferson and Burr the same number of votes, sending it to the House to decide which one of them would be president.

Thirty-six ballots and a truly ridiculous amount of politicking later, Jefferson was finally elected president and Burr vice president. But the flaws in the Constitution were beginning to show, and the 12th Amendment was ratified just in time for the next presidential election. The 12th Amendment changed it so that electors voted for a president and a vice president, as opposed to two presidential ballots. It also created the modern rules for tie-breaking.

WHAT HISTORY CAN TELL US

In the entire history of the country, the Electoral College has only failed to come to an agreement twice, once for president and once for vice president. Weirdly, however, they were in two different elections.

The 1836 election pitted Martin Van Buren against a supergroup of Whig opponents specially picked to appeal to specific regions. The plan was to prevent Van Buren from getting a majority in any region so that the House would make the decision. It didn’t work and Van Buren won; but when it came time to count the electoral votes, Van Buren’s running mate, Richard Johnson, was one vote short of a majority. The entire Virginia delegation had cast their presidential votes for Van Buren and their vice presidential ballots for a different candidate. The election went to the Senate, which picked Johnson in a party line vote.

In 1824, Andrew Jackson won a plurality in both the popular vote and the Electoral College, but not a majority. When it got to the House, they chose second place John Quincy Adams to be president. Accusations immediately started flying that Adams had secured the support of Speaker of the House Henry Clay, who had come in fourth in the race and was thus ineligible to be chosen, in exchange for an appointment as Secretary of State. As for the vice presidency? John Calhoun has been described by one historian as “everybody’s second choice” and won Electoral College votes from all sides of the political spectrum, dominating his vice presidential opponents.

WHAT IF THERE’S NO TIE ON ELECTION DAY?

Waking up on Wednesday morning, the newspapers blare "We have a winner!" But that’s not the end of the story.

After the contentious 2000 election, with Bush sitting on 271 electoral votes and Gore with 267, there were reports and conspiracy theories of Gore and Democrat consultants trying to flip three electors (for their part, the Gore campaign disavowed the endeavor). This didn’t happen (and actually one Gore elector abstained, giving Gore 266 votes), but the fact that it was even tossed around as an idea shows that the Electoral College could in theory make up their own minds regardless of the actual results.

In 1988, it was George H.W. Bush vs. Michael Dukakis and his running mate Lloyd Bentsen. Bush won in a landslide, but one elector flipped their ballot and voted Bentsen president and Dukakis vice president, giving Bentsen one electoral vote for president (the elector, Margarette Leach of West Virginia, did it to protest the Electoral College).

It was inconsequential because the vote was a landslide. But what if it wasn’t and the election was tied?

The Constitution says “if no person [has an electoral majority], then from the persons having the highest numbers not exceeding three on the list of those voted for as president” shall the House pick the president. In a no-Electoral College-majority election, the Dukakis-Bentsen flip would have resulted in the House choosing between the top three presidential electoral vote getters—Bush, Dukakis, and Bentsen. In that case, it wouldn’t be impossible for the House to decide Bentsen as winner. And although constitutional scholars doubt whether the system would allow such a scenario to take place, Bentsen could in theory also be a vice presidential candidate (the 12th Amendment has the Senate pick between the top two vice presidential vote-getters, so Dukakis would be out).

The Electoral College doesn’t need to go down the route of people anyone has actually “voted for,” either. In 1972, one elector cast a vote for the Libertarians, despite them only getting 3674 popular votes in the entire country. But at least they were running for president. In 1976, the two main candidates were Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, with Bob Dole and Walter Mondale as the respective VPs. Carter/Mondale walked away from election night the winners with 297 electoral votes to Ford/Dole’s 241. But after the Electoral College met, Ford only got 240. This wasn’t a repeat of Gore’s missing electoral vote or the Dukakis flip—Dole still got 241.

One Washington state (which Ford won) elector voted Ronald Reagan for president, Dole for vice president (Reagan would later tell the elector, Mike Padden, “Boy, we sure gave 'em a go in '76. It came so close”), which illustrates that the Electoral College can pick anyone. And Leach, the Bentsen elector who used her vote as a protest in 1988, would later echo this point by saying, “When I got home I said to myself I should have voted for Kitty [Dukakis]. If 270 women got together on the Electoral College we could have had a woman President.”