Cross-examine Like a Psychopath

November 26, 2012 Criminal Defense

I came across a new book called “The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success” by Kevin Dutton. A catchy title even for the motivational field. He claims that CEOs and lawyers are high in the psychopathy continuum. This sounds bad, but he makes the point that psychopathic traits really aren’t all bad. It’s all a matter of degree. He writes that the seven deadly “wins” are ruthlessness, charm, focus, mental toughness, fearlessness, mindfulness and action.

Dutton claims the brilliant neurosurgeon who lacks empathy is more like Ted Bundy who killed for pleasure than we may wish to admit, and that the mugger lurking in a dimly lit parking lot has the same nerveless poise as a titan of industry.

The “functional psychopaths,” unlike their murderous counterparts, use their detached, unflinching, and charismatic personalities to succeed in mainstream society, and that shockingly, in some fields, the more “psychopathic” people are, the more likely they are to succeed.

Dutton places lawyers second on the list for psychopathic tendencies. He quotes one lawyer: “Deep inside me there’s a serial killer lurking somewhere. But I keep him amused with cocaine, Formula One, booty calls, and coruscating cross-examination.” Thus my subject for this post – cross-examination for psychopaths. I don’t recommend all the former vices but I do the “coruscating” crosses. At the very least we are sublimating our anti-social tendencies through verbally confronting and dissecting witnesses. Dutton colorfully describes our evolution: “Streaming behind our supersonic, turbocharged brains are ancient Darwinian vapor trails stretching all the way back to the brutal , blood-soaked killing fields of prehistory.”  I like “blood-soaked.”

The key traits to psychopathic success are: ruthlessness; intense capacity to focus, excluding all distractions such as fear; powerful reward motivation; a disposition to action; acute ability to read emotions in other people, without being moved by them; charisma; mental resilience; and mindfulness, the ability to live in the present moment. Include in that “the refrigerated heart of a ruthless, glacial predator.” Sounds a lot like a trial lawyer conducting a cross-examination.

Assuming his diagnosis is true, I am ready to embrace my inner Hannibal Lecter. In Thomas Harris’s books, Lecter possesses an extraordinary mental radar system to size up his victims and then destroy them. If only I had that psychopathic, serial killer sixth sense, imagine what I could do.

I want to get into their heads. Most people are not interested in what someone else is thinking or what they have to say. They act like they are listening, but they are only waiting for their turn to speak, anxiously waiting to jump in. I want to be zoned into their minds.

With Lecter’s radar I could read them like an ebook. I know that people exude information and if I could only see it all. . . . It flows from their mouths, it advertises in every mannerism, tic and twitch. Whether they are shy, materialistic, body conscious, vain, fluent in cliche, brimming in aphorism and tabloid axioms, they reveal themselves in thousands of different ways. I want to be sensitive to the signals. To identify them like a bird-watcher cataloging avian species.

I want to dissect their clothes, listen for changes in their voices and watch their eye movements. Recognize their pupil dilation, pore size, skin flush, rate of breathing. Search out the poker tells.

I want to know what they put in their shopping carts. Which magazines they read and TV shows they watch. What wave length are they operating on. Whether they appear perturbed. Acts hunted or feigns contrition or constructs a defense for themselves.  Are they delaying their answers or embellishing them with extra detail? Are there outward signs of stress in their posture or their faces?  Are they playing games or being straight?

I know in my heart of hearts that everybody lies – every day, every hour, awake, asleep, even in their dreams.  Every part of their bodies – their tongue, their hands, their toes, their eyes, their attitude – all will display their deceptions. If only I could see it.

Armed with all this information I could easily lever open their defenses.  Then assault them with laser-like questions which shatter their confidence and force devastating admissions. They dribble off the witness stand forming a pool on the floor. And I do it without any conscience — just like Lecter.

And after the trial I take my meds and return to normal.


addendum: I just watched an episode of the BBC series Sherlock. Brilliant show. I love Benedict Cumberbatch playing Holmes. But the purpose of this addendum is to point out one line spoken by Sherlock: “I’m not a psychopath; I’m a high-functioning sociopath.” Perhaps that is a superior diagnosis for the most effective cross-examiners. I interpret Holmes comment to mean he doesn’t solve cases to serve some notion of justice, but for the selfish satisfaction of winning.