Life in Prison over Childhood Beliefs: Psychology behind the Ritchie case

Life in Prison over Childhood Beliefs: Psychology behind the Ritchie case

Megan Roques (@meganroques)

When coding cases, we examine multiple cases with various motivations in order to determine if they fit the inclusion criteria. Lately, most of the cases that I have found have been the result of scraping documents and databases. Therefore, coding these cases leads to many surprises from fugitives to crazy domestic plots. When I came across the Ritchie case, I was intrigued about how it escaped the project’s radar for so long and why it took our justice system 17 years to process a racially motivated murder. For those unfamiliar with the Ritchie case, Richard Phillip Ritchie and a co-defendant named Kelly Jean Sorrell murdered 32-year-old Howard McClendon so Sorrell could receive “lighting bolt” tattoos.

Lighting bolt tattoos are given to individuals as a badge of honor for white supremacists who murder African-Americans. Both of these individuals are facing a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole and 29 years to life, respectively. 

Since the crime occurred almost two decades before it got prosecuted, there was not a lot of news coverage about the case. However, Sorrell has done multiple interviews about how deeply she regrets her crimes that resulted in her prison life. After watching some of her interviews, I was interested in the reasoning behind young individuals committing violent crimes when it comes to racial bias. Although one’s beliefs have an impact in our daily lives and motivate some our actions, they are not static. Studies have shown that one’s childhood interactions and memories can guide our beliefs but the idea that our beliefs cannot change is erroneous. In fact, we can change our beliefs and in turn change what aspects of our lives are integrated with our sensory information (Sathyanarayana et al, 2009)

If it’s known that our beliefs may change after we grow up, why did Sorrell and Ritchie risk a life of prison for them? After World War II, the world questioned German soldiers why they committed highly violent acts against Jews. Yes, some may have committed these acts because they were simply following authority but others have quirks in their personality that makes them later on develop authoritarian traits. These traits are developed along with their childhood values so they are rooted in their prepubescent personality (Adorno et al, 1950). The outcome of these childhood experiences leads to people treating them how their parents treated them so they are more likely to be prejudiced against the inferior and weak members of society such the physically impaired, mentally ill, minorities, etc… (Levin and Levin, 1982). 

Although authoritarian traits may not be exhibited on a daily basis, social conditions that make an individual feel threatened leads these individuals to adopt more conservative values.  Some of the conditions that could have led someone such as Sorrell to feel threatened are the progress of minorities, shift to multicultural curricula, or an increase in activist groups. If we keep in mind that the attack happened in the 90’s when both defendants were in their 20’s, it is probable that the period of social progress was perceived as a threat which could have been the source for their rage. 

If individuals have prejudiced tendencies  because of their “belief” system which is based on childhood experiences, what drives the push to actually committing acts of violence in the name of their belief system? According to Reckless (1961), bonds in society can be broken with deviations in their inner and outer containment. Inner containment is our self perception such as our ego, self control, and tolerance. Meanwhile, outer containment is the social influences or the institutions that teach us our sense of right and wrong. Studies have shown that individuals who joined skinhead movements (which have similar values as the white supremacist group that Sorrell and Ritchie were in), have weak inner and outer containment (Borgeson and Valeri, 2017). Therefore, these individuals are searching for a sense of belonging or something powerful that makes them stand out in society’s eyes. The increase in self-confidence and the feeling of belonging strengthens their inner and outer containment and decreases their morality which can blur the lines of the illegality of the act. Inner containment is further increased because having the choice of causing harm or not makes them more powerful and gives them control they lacked when growing up. 

I believe that there are no excuses for committing violence because of a belief system. However, studying the “why” of these crimes and the correlation between the level of violence with the intensity of the belief system may provide clues on how to reduce the number of crimes committed per year.  Our internal battle with our insecurities is not an excuse to project that anger unto society. Hate has been embedded as the norm for our country but as mentioned above, belief systems can change but it is up to us to make those changes. 

Works Cited

Adorno, T. W., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D. J., & Sanford, N. H. (1950). The authoritarian personality. New York: Harper and Row.

Borgeson, K., & Valeri, R. (2017). Skinheads: History, identity, and culture. New York: Routledge Press. 

Levin, J., & Levin, W. (1982). The functions of discrimination and prejudice. New York: Harper & Row Publishers. 

Reckless, W. C. (1961). A new theory of delinquency and crime. Federal Probation, 25, 42-46. 

Sathyanarayana Rao, T. S., Asha, M. R., Jagannatha Rao, K. S., & Vasudevaraju, P. (2009). The biochemistry of belief. Indian journal of psychiatry, 51(4), 239–241.

5 thoughts on “Life in Prison over Childhood Beliefs: Psychology behind the Ritchie case

  1. My name is Catrina Dwyer. I was/am friends of Kelly Sorrell and I knew the brothers.
    She came to my house and we went to the bathroom and she pulled up her shirt to show me her tattoo. I remember saying , “ oh please don’t show me something I don’t want to se.” she showed me and I looked in the mirror with a single tear I walked out shaking my head.
    I knew they had her in the palm of their hands.
    We drifted apart about 5 years and I answers the phone at a house she was calling. She called back and said “Cat?”
    I said yeah . And we were close once more. Until she got arrested.
    I follow the court the best I could. I’d cry knowing she was in court that day or when the paper would reprint something.
    Or when people would bring it up. It breaks my heart Bc I didn’t keep in contact but she didn’t need to hear the crap I was living they.
    But for some strange reason I ran across this article. If
    I’d love to talk to her again if able.
    Can you help ???
    Especially know that I know she reciecwd 29 and no parole. Yikes!!
    I just asked achdhood friend of ours who is very close to Kelly’s daughter if she’s getting out soon and she she told me no .
    I really thought she’d be get out by 2024.
    It really hurts my soul I haven’t written her.
    Please if you can , help heal a ampuece ofmy spirit.

  2. You partially wrong. It’s not as cut and dry about racism as you believe. Kelly is my sister. Her reasons were simple. My mother kicked her out (the reason she was seeking acceptance). A lot of Drugs and the wrong people drive to her crime. What you don’t know, is that or step father was black. Kelly took care of him a lot in his later years. You can stop assuming incorrectly that Kelly was a believer in the racist agenda of the idiots she was with. Richie was a POS and lied my sister to their group after relations between her and our mother fell apart over drug use. She owns up to what she did. She lives every day trying to make amends for what she did. You site everything in your article except factual information from Kelly herself. Maybe start with that when researching why people do things. Think outside your textbook.

    1. I agree, nothing cited from Kelly. I was actually really good friends with her in high school. We used to talk about things we dealt with at home. We were both rebellious and several people in our crowd turned out to be some scary people. I was shocked when i heard about this. It’s hard for me to believe. I still remember her as a friend, and part of me just wants to say hello, but the brutality of it makes me sick. I miss who she was before this. I hope she has grown spiritually, everyone has their own life path and lessons. love and light ❤️

    2. Jaysen! I shared a cell w/your beloved sister, Kelly, when I was incarcerated in 2014 (for a alleged crime I was acquitted for at trial). To this day, she is the most remarkable person I’ve ever met. Kelly was so very sorry for the crime she committed that she vowed to try and make a difference in peoples lives if she was ever to go free. I’ve lost touch w/her over the yrs. I was writing to her, regularly, when she was first sent up to Chowchilla. Can you give me any updates on her? Tell her Dawn loves her, thinks of her daily and is very hopeful she can be released from prison one day so that she can honor the memory of her victim by contributing to society in the wonderful ways she had planned.

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