Okay, right from the start, I’d much rather have been in a room with Eric Clapton or Anthony Bourdain, Kristin Scott Thomas or even Julia Child! (Think of the great food, although maybe I should update to Rachel Ray.) Instead, in my job as a Public Defender, I get to sit in rooms with criminals and serial killers. Every day.
Luckily, it doesn’t happen often, but I have represented a couple serial killers. People ask me: “What are they really like?”
Well, they’re like most of us—unfortunately. With a few differences, of course. I remember defending a guy named Joe several years ago. He was accused of four rape cases and then the prosecutors got around to charging him with murder—several of them.
He was a young guy, in his thirties, and had worked as a part time car mechanic for a living. He would generally pick up young girls who were alone on the streets. His usual method was to talk them up a little and then try to get them into his car.
After he was convicted of all four rapes, he started to confess to the first of several murders. They were some of the most gruesome I’d ever heard. He’d taken one woman far out into the country, threatened her with a knife, stabbed her to death in the chest—and then raped her. He followed another woman home and when she wouldn’t have sex with him, killed her with a shotgun and proceeded to shoot her children as well. A really nice guy.
I remember going to the jail to interview him. The cells were small, made of concrete, and had a plastic table with two plastic chairs in each one. He had spent several months there waiting for his trials. The jail food isn’t good and he had started to gain weight. He had an arrogant attitude about the prosecutors and their evidence, saying he could explain everything to a jury.
Like most criminals I’ve worked with, he had a personality disorder—to say the least. Some of us are neurotic, that is we take on responsibility for people and things we don’t need to do. Most criminals are the opposite—they blame everyone for their problems and don’t take responsibility for anything, even their crimes.
Joe fit the pattern exactly and told me repeatedly about how misunderstood he was and how the world was trying to screw him all the time.
Then, during one of our conversations, I looked up at him and my breath caught in my throat. I saw a human sitting across the plastic desk from me and he talked like a human, but there wasn’t any human being inside the body. I felt like a vacuum had sucked all the air out of the small room. He didn’t have a conscience and I saw that clearly for the first time. I didn’t feel physically threatened, but it was worse. I was spiritually frightened to be in the presence of something evil.
The court psychologists tell me they use the terms sociopaths and psychopaths interchangeably. To me, it didn’t make any difference. The person sitting before me was a sociopath with no conscience.