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Listening to Killers: Lessons Learned from My Twenty Years as a Psychological Expert Witness in Murder Cases

Listening to Killers: Lessons Learned from My Twenty Years as a Psychological Expert Witness in Murder Cases

by James Garbarino
Listening to Killers: Lessons Learned from My Twenty Years as a Psychological Expert Witness in Murder Cases

Listening to Killers: Lessons Learned from My Twenty Years as a Psychological Expert Witness in Murder Cases

by James Garbarino


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Listening to Killers offers an inside look at twenty years' worth of murder files from Dr. James Garbarino, a leading expert psychological witness who listens to killers so that he can testify in court. The author offers detailed accounts of how killers travel a path that leads from childhood innocence to lethal violence in adolescence or adulthood. He places the emotional and moral damage of each individual killer within a larger scientific framework of social, psychological, anthropological, and biological research on human development. By linking individual cases to broad social and cultural issues and illustrating the social toxicity and unresolved trauma that drive some people to kill, Dr. Garbarino highlights the humanity we share with killers and the role of understanding and empathy in breaking the cycle of violence.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520958746
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 03/12/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 324
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Dr. James Garbarino holds the Maude C. Clarke Chair in Humanistic Psychology and was Founding Director of the Center for the Human Rights of Children at Loyola University Chicago. He was formerly Professor of Human Development at Cornell University, and he is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association. He has served as an adviser to the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse, the National Institute for Mental Health, the American Medical Association, the U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect, and the FBI. He is the author of Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them.

Read an Excerpt

Listening to Killers

Lessons Learned from My Twenty Years as a Psychological Expert Witness in Murder Cases

By James Garbarino


Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95874-6


The Concept of Choice in the Criminal Justice System

October 5, 2010: Robert Tallman tells me that he estimates he has been in sixty one-on-one street fights. He reports that he will smile through anything but he won't let anyone take advantage of him. He says, "I smile at them. But I've been through too much to let anybody take advantage of me. I don't mind getting beat up if that's what it takes.... I will do anything to respond to what you do." He made the choice to fight and never give in to intimidation by others. On August 26, 2009, he shot and killed two teenagers who he thought had been part of a group that assaulted his stepbrother.

March 27, 2012: Junior Mercedez tells me that as a child, "fear and anticipation of violence seemed like the norm to me. Later, when I started visiting other kids' houses I could see what's really normal.... I never told anyone about my home life. I just lied about it.... The Code is you have to take care of things yourself and don't involve outside people." He made the choice to keep the abuse and neglect he experienced at home a secret. On November 15, 2011, in a case of fatal child abuse, he beat to death his girlfriend's two-year-old child out of frustration with the boy's misbehavior.

Two bad choices. Two fatal outcomes. Is it really that simple? The criminal justice system runs on the principle that people choose what they do, and thus the principal issue in most cases is the matter of "good" versus "bad" choices. It all sounds so clear-cut: Human beings have free will, and therefore they should be held accountable for the choices they make. Some individuals make good choices, and they should be rewarded for those good choices. Others make bad choices, and they should be punished for those bad choices. Simple.

However, the more I listen to killers, the more I think it is quite the opposite of simple. This is particularly true in cases that involve juveniles and young adult offenders who are not yet mature adults, but it applies to adults as well. You can't understand these boys and girls, these men and women, unless you are willing to dig deeply into the processes by which people in general make choices. You have to look at the way in which the social and psychological environment that killers inhabit shapes the options they have to choose from, and the processes they use to make those choices, particularly the bad ones. Then you have to look at what modern neuroscience tells us about how brain functions affect the choices people make.

In most cases, you must do this if you want to respond with justice based on an accurate understanding of what happened. But in every case, it is essential if you are to respond with compassion, not just for the victims and their families, who naturally are almost always the beneficiaries of our compassion, but for the murderers themselves, toward whom it is usually more challenging to feel compassion.

The issue of choice is always present in the courtroom, but rarely as baldly as it was when the attorney representing convicted serial killer Jorge Susindo asked me this question: "Can the experience of prolonged, severe trauma affect a person's ability and motivation to make 'good choices' in life?"

I answered, "Yes, it can and does."

The attorney continued the examination: "Can you explain that?"

In the courtroom, I could give only a brief answer along these lines: All choices are made in a particular context, a particular place and time. Who you are and where and when you live plays a role in shaping the range of choices open to you and, thus, the choices you make. Both internal issues (such as knowledge of options, understanding social realities, internalized cultural values, unconscious forces, and brain functions) and external issues (such as the rewards and punishments meted out by the social environment) can affect an individual's perception of the available choices and the consequences of one choice versus another. That's the short answer. This chapter is the long answer.


The killers I have listened to made a choice to kill someone, often for reasons that seem utterly "crazy" to an outsider. However, none of them met the strict legal criteria for an insanity plea. That is, none of them maintained that at the time they committed their crime they did not appreciate the nature or the wrongfulness of what they were doing. In the strict and narrow terms employed by the legal system, they were not so impaired by a mental illness or "mental defect" that they were totally disconnected from reality (for example, hallucinating). Also, while they often justified what they did in terms of the "war zone mentality" that I mentioned in the introduction and will examine in detail in chapter 3, they were aware that what they were doing was illegal (in the sense that it violated mainstream norms), even while it might be consistent with the rules of engagement in the war zone in which they lived.

Sometimes, and in some jurisdictions in the United States, it is possible to assert that a killer was suffering from a mental condition or mental defect that created an "irresistible impulse" to kill. This generally doesn't apply to "my" killers but is used in the rare case of an ordinarily "law abiding" citizen who goes crazy because of some extreme situation, like "normal" parents who kill the person who molested their child. This happened in Shiner, Texas, in June 2012, when a father walked into his house during a social event to find his four-year-old daughter being sexually abused by a man who was a casual acquaintance of the father. The father was so enraged that he beat the man to death. In the wake of the incident, every person CNN interviewed in the town—including the sheriff—approved of his action and believed he shouldn't face any criminal charges. Ultimately the local prosecutor agreed, and no charges were filed. In what is, I think, a related phenomenon, since 1976 Texas has executed more people than any other state—four times as many as its closest rival for this dubious honor. Violent retribution is—in Texas at least—a "good" choice, whether it is made by an individual or by the state, when the grounds for that choice are culturally validated.

An insanity defense seeks to get the defendant acquitted of his crime by saying, in effect, "my client was not operating within a normal moral framework at the time of the killing because he was so crazy he didn't know what he was doing, or didn't know it was wrong, or couldn't help himself from doing something that he wouldn't ordinarily do and would not do again in the future." By and large, the killers to whom I have listened don't meet these criteria for the legal definition of insanity.

This is not surprising, given the rarity of such pleas succeeding in American courts. A study commissioned by the National Institute of Mental Health and reported by PBS found that the insanity defense is raised in less than 1 percent of all felony trials (about half being for crimes of violence, 15 percent for murder), and successful in only about 25 percent of those instances (thus, one-quarter of 1 percent of all felony trials). Typically, such cases involve plea bargains for defendants who had already been diagnosed with a mental illness, so it is still rarer for an insanity plea to succeed in a trial. For example, as an analysis conducted by Robert Buettner found, according to the New York State Division of Criminal Services, of the 5,910 murder trials completed from 2003 to 2013, in only seven cases was the defendant found not guilty for reason of mental disease or defect (that is, "legally insane").


Most of the killers I listen to commit their crimes in states of mind that mimic the conditions that define legal insanity: they believe that in their world what they are doing is necessary and therefore right. They are so emotionally damaged that in their minds they have lost sight of the relevance of "right and wrong." They are responding to powerful emotional forces—often unconscious forces—over which they have little if any control, at least in the moment of their violent action. It is in this sense that they make "crazy" choices.

The more than fifty murder cases in which I have been involved over the past twenty years have included many different explanations for the violent choices made. When looked at from the outside observer's point of view, many seem crazy. However, each makes sense when looked at from the inside of their minds (and hearts in some cases). What follows is not a standardized system for classifying these choices, but it does make sense to me as a representation or typology of choices to kill that I hear from men and boys (and some women and girls).

A Typology of Crazy Choices to Kill

Survival. We are programmed to survive. When faced with a threat, we respond to ensure our survival. However, as we will see in chapter 3, some of us learn lessons that predispose us to choose preemptive violence when we feel threatened. When Leonel Rivas saw a rival gang member reach under the dashboard of his car, he thought his opponent was grabbing a gun and would shoot him if he didn't protect himself. He chose to shoot first.

Lust for power. What the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche called "the will to power" is strong in many of us. In the violent world that some of us live in, this seeking for power leads us to choose violence as a means to that end. Daniel Wellington sought to uphold his "image" in the neighborhood and gain power by carrying a gun, behaving recklessly, engaging in numerous "stickups," and taking a role in drug dealing. In explaining his choice to shoot a rival drug- gang leader, he says, "If you cut off the head, the body dies." He says that these actions were essential to garner resources and protect himself in a "dog eat dog" world.

Monstrous narcissism. Narcissists are dominated by their egotism, pride, vanity, selfishness, and drive for prestige (usually at the expense of others). When it becomes extreme, it can reach the level of a clinically diagnosed personality disorder. Researchers, including Joshua Foster and his colleagues, have observed that narcissism is generally higher, on average, in males than in females and in African Americans than in other ethnic groups in the United States (and generally higher in individualistic cultures like ours). Georgia Calhoun and her colleagues have found that it is prominent among violent juvenile delinquents. While awaiting trial for charges of robbery, burglary, and aggravated assault, twenty-four-year-old Nate Barrington invaded the house of sixty-five-year-old Melanie Hampton and her seventy-year-old husband, Thomas Hampton, intent on robbing them. To silence them so that he could get away with his crime, Barrington chose to beat and stab the couple until they died. He then burned their bodies and their home.

Existential honor. As we will see in chapter 3, the "culture of honor" increases the risk that individuals will choose to respond aggressively when they feel humiliated or disrespected. Even beyond this culture of honor lies the foundation for violence in the feeling that without honor there lies the prospect of "psychic annihilation"—a fear that one will cease to exist as a person, as psychiatrist James Gilligan puts it. Eighteen-year-old Jonny Angleson shot and killed seventeen-year-old Shawn Berthson on September 15, 2004, after a verbal altercation. Jonny's sister had been threatened at gunpoint by the victim and his friends a week before the shooting as part of an escalating conflict with neighborhood peers. Jonny chose to defend his family's honor by shooting neighborhood rival Shawn. His sister testified that if he had not done so, she would be dead.

Retaliation for sexual abandonment. Fear of abandonment is a powerful motivator for action. Geraldine Downey and her colleagues have identified "rejection sensitivity" among men as a significant risk factor for domestic violence. When individuals high on rejection sensitivity believe that they are about to be rejected and abandoned, they "choose" to engage in preemptive violence. Simon Dalton was distraught and enraged at the thought that his girlfriend had broken off their relationship and started seeing other men. In response, he chose to kill her, her mother, her grandfather, and a neighbor who tried to intervene on their behalf.

Panic. Fear is a powerful motivator. Some individuals choose to kill because they are in a state of panic and literally "can't think of anything else to do." This may involve killing to avoid being killed oneself, or reacting impulsively when in a state of intense emotional arousal because the brain's capacity for effective "executive functioning" is suppressed. Ron Richardson was being pursued by a police officer. Since he was already on parole, Richardson knew that if he was arrested he would be going back to prison for a long time, so he chose to shoot at the officer in an attempt to discourage him from continuing the chase. The officer was hit by one of the bullets and died.

Criminal practicality. Researchers have long differentiated between acts of violence committed because of strong emotions, with the intent to inflict pain ("hostile" aggression), and acts of violence committed simply to attain a particular concrete goal ("instrumental" aggression). Some killing is done simply as part of the "business" of crime (e.g., drug dealing). Ronald Garner kills because he sees it as just a normal part of his business managing a large drug- dealing operation. For him, killing is a practical matter of criminal enterprise. "I kill because it's good for business," he says.

Curiosity or thrill. Some human beings are so disconnected emotionally from the rest of us that they don't "get it" when it comes to moral decency. Psychologist Robert Hare has called these individuals "psychopaths." They are prone to kill just for the enjoyment of it or out of a perverse curiosity. Tim Bankovic wanted to see how it would feel to kill someone, so he chose to lure two sandwich deliverymen to a secluded location and killed them to find out.

Each of these categories of choice represents a "bad" choice, although in some cases these boys and men (and in a few cases, girls and women) thought that it was not an immoral choice, at least at the time when he (or she) committed the act. Each caused the death of another human being. I recognize the fact that appreciating the norm that murder is ethically unacceptable does not require advanced moral judgment. And I recognize that not all killing is murder: most people believe in killing others, at least under some circumstances (such as in self-defense, in war, or in state-authorized executions, for example). But even murder is not simple most of the time.


Most murderous choices reflect the particular worldview of the perpetrator, and "my" murderers often have special circumstances that affect their worldview. Their tendency to overidentify serious threats to their survival and their justification for preemptive assault reflect their war zone mentality and, thus, an inability to be a part of the moral world that most of us inhabit. Their emotional damage undermines their emotional self-regulation, increasing the risk that rage and fear from unprocessed rejection, humiliation, and abuse in their past will spill over into the present in situations that evoke the original trauma (more on this in chapters 3 and 4).

There are individuals like Tim Bankovic who really do not have any moral sense and are totally disconnected from humanity, either because they have no empathy or because they don't embrace moral values that demand respect for life. We call these individuals "psychopaths." Like psychologist and researcher Robert Hare, I prefer this term to the more commonly used "sociopath." Hare has argued that most individuals whose behavior is not impeded by allegiance to the mainstream moral community and who thus demonstrate a chronic pattern of antisocial behavior are best understood not as psychopaths but as sociopaths. What differentiates them is that psychopaths have human disconnection at their core (whether originating from a congenital inability to connect or from a developmental reaction to brutality in childhood), whereas sociopaths have "simply" developed a bad habit of behaving antisocially. This pattern may result from destructive psychological experiences in childhood and adolescence but not be associated with the emotional disconnection and "lack of conscience" usually attributed to true psychopaths. I will return to this issue in greater depth in chapter 3.


Excerpted from Listening to Killers by James Garbarino. Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Becoming an Expert Witness

Part I Getting Close to Killers
1 The Concept of Choice in the Criminal Justice System
2 Keeping Killers inside Our Circle of Caring
3 Moral Damage: Growing Up with a War Zone Mentality
4 Emotional Damage: The Consequences of Unresolved Trauma

Part II The American Way of Killing
5 "If You’re Old Enough to Do the Crime, You’re Old Enough to Do the Time"
6 Tales of Rehabilitation, Transformation, and Redemption
7 Guns Don’t Kill People—People with Guns Kill People
8 Making Sense of the Senseless: Understanding and Preventing Killing in America

Appendix: Zagar’s Model

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