The smell of a sociopath

Photo credit: mrbill78636's photostream per Creative Commons license.

Photo credit: mrbill78636’s photostream per Creative Commons license.

I once represented a guy who I will call SS.  He told me things I cannot get out of my head.

SS was a sociopath in the truest sense of the word.  If you want to know what a sociopath is like from a competent clinician’s point of view, read Martha Stout’s The Sociopath Next Door: The Ruthless Versus the Rest of Us, Random House (2005).  Dr. Stout provides this chilling insight into the qualities of a sociopath like SS:

Imagine—if you can—not having a conscience, none at all, no feelings of guilt or remorse no matter what you do, no limiting sense of concern for the well-being of strangers, friends, or even family members. Imagine no struggles with shame, not a single one in your whole life, no matter what kind of selfish, lazy, harmful, or immoral action you had taken. And pretend that the concept of responsibility is unknown to you, except as a burden others seem to accept without question, like gullible fools.

[N]ow let us say you are a person who has a proclivity for violence or for seeing violence done. You can simply murder your coworker, or have her murdered—or your boss, or your ex-spouse, or your wealthy lover’s spouse, or anyone else who bothers you. You have to be careful, because if you slip up, you may be caught and punished by the system. But you will never be confronted by your conscience, because you have no conscience. If you decide to kill, the only difficulties will be the external ones. Nothing inside of you will ever protest.

Id. at 1, 4.

Many years ago there was a psychiatrist at the big state mental hospital in Nebraska who was far less capable than Dr. Stout. Although he had trouble passing his boards, he claimed to have one highly sought after ability that even Dr. Stout would have envied. Diagnostically, and after years of dealing with them, this psychiatrist thought he could smell a sociopath. To be clear, he literally thought he could detect a particular odor given off only by a sociopath. I wish I would have had that ability before I was appointed to represent SS.  Unfortunately, I was just young lawyer with undeveloped olfactory powers.

SS was charged with multiple burglaries.  He was also suspected of viciously, and I mean viciously, raping several women as he rummaged and rampaged through their homes.  The evidence from the prosecutor’s open file showed that SS was careful to commit the burglaries and associated rapes at such times and in such ways that the women would have trouble identifying him.  For a moment, let your mind turn violently pornographic. After that, fill in the details for yourself.

SS was in real trouble.  If he was convicted, he would be an habitual criminal. Effectively, that would result in a life sentence. I knew this before I went over to meet him in Big John’s jail.

When we sat down for our first interview, I was surprised. SS was a good-looking man. He was glib and almost charming. SS made a very good first impression. I began to get a sick feeling, however, the more we talked. The specifics of what followed are privileged and I will not disclose what he told me.  It is enough to say that the conversation chilled me in ways I had never imagined possible. Before I left this first interview, I gave SS a legal pad and told him to write me if he thought I needed to know something more. I hurried away.

I saw SS infrequently after that. I only went to the jail every so often to keep him informed of what I was doing. He seemed perfectly content with my work on his behalf.

I did what lawyers typically do in criminal cases.  I investigated the facts, and I researched the law.  It became evident that the prosecutor’s case was largely based upon items that came from the burgled homes.  Those items, together with some very damning hand written notes, were found in SS’s apartment in a small Nebraska town following the execution of a search warrant.  This evidence tied SS to the burglaries in convincing detail.  That said, this was long before DNA testing was possible, so it was highly unlikely that the prosecution could proceed on the rape charges without also proving that SS was guilty of the burglaries.  After all, none of the women could provide a convincing identification.

As I was preparing the motion to suppress the search, I received a letter from SS. It was written on paper torn from the legal pad I had given SS.  Although hand written, the words were in neat and almost pretty cursive script. The letter accused me of providing SS with ineffective assistance of counsel.

What to do? I talked to my law partner and mentor, and he told me I had two choices. I could move to withdraw or I could take the matter head on. My partner and mentor said that the second course of action was fraught with danger, but it was also the most principled thing to do.  And, so I contacted the judge and asked for an ex parte hearing with the judge and SS.

I presented the letter to the judge in the presence of SS.  For each segment of the allegation, I outlined what I had done or not done and why I had pursued that course of action. Because SS had not disclosed in his letter anything about what he had told me during our interview, I could not and did not disclose what he had told me. The judge then asked SS what he thought after hearing my explanation. SS responded in the same almost charming way I had first observed at our initial interview.  He indicated that perhaps he was mistaken and, if so, he apologized to everyone. However, if the judge did not appoint a new lawyer, SS wanted his letter filed as a record of his complaint. The judge ruled that there was no persuasive evidence that I had provided ineffective assistance of counsel. As requested, the judge made the letter a matter of record. SS thanked the judge profusely, and we left. As the deputy sheriff took him away, SS smiled nicely at me but said nothing.

Shortly thereafter, my motion to suppress was heard.  The motion was granted after it became evident that the authorities searched SS’s residence but his true address was different from the one listed in the affidavit and warrant.  In the little town where the warrant was executed, the addresses were very odd.  The authorities had been authorized to search a residence at 2014, but  my client’s correct address was 2014½. The suppression of the evidence was the death knell of the case against SS. Shortly after the judge ruled, the prosecution dismissed the charges and SS was freed.

By that time, I had come to hate SS and I still do. If he is not already doing so now, and although I am an agnostic in religious terms, I fervently pray that he rots in hell.


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