Psychopaths at Law: On the Likelihood That the Psychopath in the Courtroom ISN’T the Defendant

Posted on November 27, 2013

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“In the courtroom, I have literally rubbed people out, crucified them in the witness box. I have absolutely no problem at all reducing an alleged rape victim to tears on the stand. You know why? Because that’s my job. That’s what my client pays me to do. At the end of the day, I can hang up my wig and gown, go out to a restaurant with my wife, and not give a damn. Even though I know that what happened earlier might possibly have ruined her life.”

—From The Wisdom of Psychopaths

Last year on NPR I heard about a book titled, The Wisdom of Psychopaths. I also heard an interview with its author, Kevin Dutton, an Oxford don who’s the most implausibly professorial person I’ve ever listened to. He was cool. And funny.

The quotation above is from a British barrister (attorney) questioned for the book that appears on its interactive website.

I mentioned Professor Dutton’s book in a page on this blog titled, “What Is a Sociopath (or Psychopath)?” The reason I mentioned it is because in it Dr. Dutton identifies the proportion of the population who qualify as psychopaths as being much broader than most people reckon. Dr. Dutton also differentiates psychopathy from homicidal mania. Psychopaths do like exerting power over others, but it’s only the rare psychopath who’s violent and only the statistical freak of nature who keeps human organs in his icebox.

I took a test on the webpage for the book that assesses how psychopathic visitors are (“The Psychopath Challenge”). It’s highly unlikely that I’ll end my days in a straitjacket and a hockey mask. In fact several of the jobs I’ve had or plied myself at are ones said to be least attractive to psychopaths: teacher, craftsman, and creative artist (I earn my crust today as an arborist and gardener).

The reason I’m revisiting Dr. Dutton’s book in this post is that several of the jobs it identifies as most likely to draw psychopaths are ones in the legal profession and government.

Everyone’s quick to quip that lawyers are psychopaths. What’s useful for anyone to know who’s contesting restraining order injustice, or government or legal abuses in general, is that lawyers are psychopaths. To qualify that, understand that there are clinical psychopaths (individuals who might be diagnosed as psychopaths under rigorous examination by psychologists), and there are those with psychopathic qualities. There’s no perfect paradigm: “psychopathy” is defined according to particular traits and tendencies like ruthlessness, fearlessness, single-mindedness, confidence, a lack of conscience and empathy, and mental toughness, any number or all of these combined with charisma. (Dr. Dutton opens his book by identifying his own father, a huckster who was immune to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, as a psychopath.)

I’ve never read a book about how to succeed as a lawyer, but it would surprise me if these traits weren’t ones such a book urged baby attorneys to cultivate.

Besides lawyer, police officer and civil servant are listed among the top jobs for psychopaths.

Judges are at least two of these and may seem like all three rolled into one. I’ve known a retired judge who was a very kindly man who doted on his grandkids and their poodle. And I’ve met some exceptionally decent cops. I even know a couple extremely humane attorneys (both of whom left the law for academic posts). Clearly there can be dramatic departures from any attempt at categorization.

My encounters with judges generally, though, tells me that they do tend to esteem themselves exorbitantly, do lack empathy (or resist it unjustly), are prone to consider themselves above the rules, and do evince more than a little gratification from talking down to those who stand before them and even from making those parties blanch and cower (justly or not). Even judges I’ve met in casual encounters have come across to me as alpha types. (If you reach out to shake the hand of one, check twice that it’s his hand that’s being extended to you—this warning goes double for attorneys.)

Ted Bundy: psychopath, serial killer, and law student.

Law is a very political arena, that is, one that’s all about power and jockeying for position. Its daily practitioners—even the ones who aren’t immune to human feeling—lose perspective on the consequences of their actions on real lives. Or don’t give a damn (an attorney’s favorite word is prevail). There’s a lot of gamesmanship present and rarely any fellowship at all (except among one another).

Since I’ve never met a practitioner of law who was particularly gifted at critical reasoning, anyway, I think less emphasis on this aptitude on qualifying tests for admission to law school and more attention to psychological screening would be worthy of consideration. If officers of the court can’t relate to plaintiffs and defendants, and if power holds more appeal for them than serving the cause of justice, they’re not only in the wrong job; they’re dangerous.

Legal decisions have real and lasting consequences on real and lasting lives. And lives aren’t things that should be toyed with.

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