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Justice and Mercy

An expert witness advocates for killers who suffered childhood abuse.


Psychologist James Garbarino ‘s job is to “listen for the human story behind the monstrous act.” That’s how Garbarino, MAT ’70, PhD ’73, describes his two decades of work as an expert witness in murder cases, primarily in the penalty phase—when a jury is weighing whether to sentence a convicted killer to death, life without parole, or a term that allows for eventual release. “I’ve learned that the best starting hypothesis for most of these killers is to see them as untreated, traumatized children who inhabit and control these people,” Garbarino says. “The judge, the jury, and the press see these scary, violent guys. But when you get inside their heads, hear their stories, and look at their records, you realize that you’re seeing the results of arrested development for a child who was abused.”

There was the man on death row for a brutal kidnapping and murder who, as part of his appeal for a new trial, described a horrific childhood marked by starvation and physical abuse. And the young woman—one of a small number of female offenders Garbarino has interviewed—who was spared execution for a notorious L.A. gang murder after he testified that she’d been repeatedly molested by her uncle. And the hulking inmate, twice sentenced to death and facing yet another retrial, who confided to Garbarino that he cried himself to sleep every night. “I start with the basic principle that we’re two human beings, two souls sitting down together, and I really want to understand them,” he says. “A kid once told me, ‘I’ve been interrogated, I’ve been assessed, I’ve been examined, I’ve been evaluated, but nobody ever wanted to hear my whole story.’ And that’s been a guiding principle: that I want to hear their stories. An attempt at empathy and human connection is a big part of it. I’m still surprised at the level of hopefulness in guys whose lives are so devastated.”

Hired by the defense on a case-by-case basis, and sometimes working pro bono, Garbarino reviews an accused (or convicted) killer’s history and conducts interviews with them and their family members. It’s demanding, draining work—a métier that requires not only hours of reading about and listening to tales of the starkest childhood deprivation and most horrific crimes, but enduring the stress of the hot seat known as the witness stand. “I always do meditative, mindful breathing before I go in to testify, to put myself in the calmest, most focused state possible,” says Garbarino, who has testified in about fifty cases and consulted on thirty more. “A lot of the things said in cross-examination are dismissive, nasty, deliberate attempts to get a rise out of you and humiliate you, but I try not to get personally or emotionally engaged.”

He does occasionally lose his cool to some degree. One such moment, which he recalls with a certain relish, came after a prosecutor implied that a social worker might have fabricated a sympathetic report that Garbarino had used in his analysis, a suggestion he found patently ridiculous. “I said, ‘Well, some professions, like psychologists and social workers, have a code of ethics that requires them to tell the truth,’ ” Garbarino recalls. “And I paused and said, ‘Unlike lawyers.’ ” In another case, Garbarino couldn’t stomach a prosecutor’s repeated references to a teenage defendant as “mister.” “I finally said, ‘That’s the problem. “Mr. Smith” is his father, who’s sitting in the audience. This is a sixteen-year-old kid, and if you start there you take a very different approach than if you keep calling him “mister,” as if he’s a full-grown man.’ ”

James Garbarino, MAT ’70, PhD ’73

As a grad student, Garbarino was a protégé of legendary child development expert Urie Bronfenbrenner ’38, who taught on the Hill for more than half a century. He says he sees his criminal justice work—advocating for people whose early trauma and social deprivation led them to commit heinous crimes—as part of Bronfenbrenner’s enduring legacy. Garbarino himself taught at Cornell for a decade, becoming emeritus in 2005; he’s now at Chicago’s Loyola University, where he founded its Center for the Human Rights of Children. Garbarino’s books include Raising Children in a Socially Toxic Environment and Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them. In March, the University of California Press published Listening to Killers, his memoir of lessons learned from his years as an expert witness; in a starred review, Library Journal said it “should become the definitive text on the subject.”

Garbarino acknowledges that in a society with a strong law-and-order tradition—evidenced by the fact that the U.S. has about 5 percent of the world’s population and a quarter of its prison inmates—his arguments for understanding the causes of violent behavior can be a tough sell. “Some people say, ‘I don’t care how he got here; I’m just looking at what he did,’ and in their moral code that justifies death, or at least life without parole,” he notes. “But in our society, we’re also soft on children to some degree—so if you can explain the child within, that provides an opening.”

Over the past decade, Garbarino has been drawn back to the Catholic faith of his youth; last spring, he went on a week-long pilgrimage along Spain’s Camino de Santiago, a traditional route for the faithful since the Middle Ages. The church’s emphasis on redemption and transformation echoes his own: Garbarino devotes a chapter of Listening to Killers to the possibility of rehabilitation. That section ends with one of the book’s emotional high points, when Garbarino meets the infant daughter of a man whom he’d helped get parole after two decades in prison for robbery and kidnapping, crimes he’d committed as a teenager. “There’s a line in the Eucharistic liturgy that goes, ‘Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed,’ ” he says. “I often tear up hearing that, because for some of these guys, that’s what the possibility of transformation is like.”

Fighting Words

In this excerpt, Garbarino explores a murderer’s violent upbringing

October 5, 2009: I am sitting in an interview room at the Portland, Oregon, jail with twenty-year-old Robert Tallman. He is facing possible execution for killing two teenagers in his neighborhood thirteen months ago. There is little doubt of his guilt—the forensic and eyewitness evidence in this case is compelling. As I listen to him, he describes numerous occasions when he was involved in a cycle of assault and revenge; he estimates that he has been in sixty one-on-one street fights. He reports that he won’t let anyone take advantage of him. The incident for which he is currently in jail awaiting trial appears to be but one example. He and his brother had been involved in conflicts with other male youths in the neighborhood that led to an escalating pattern of assault prior to the lethal violence of June 20, 2006. There had been fistfights before, but that day, Robert’s brother Marcus was stabbed by a youth in the community. Later that evening, Robert confronted some of the youths he believed had been involved in the assault on Marcus. He shot fifteen-year-old Christopher Clemons and fourteen-year-old Lasalle Bronson. Fists gave way to knives, knives gave way to guns, and people died.

It is as if I am hearing a modern version of the Capulets and Montagues in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Robert says his mother taught him that honor and respect were the most important things in life. He reports that when he was in third grade and was in a fight with a boy, he was punched and he started to cry. The boy said, “You a bitch.” His mother heard this, and told him he had to fight the boy, saying “Robert—you soft.” Robert says his father taught him that whenever he faced conflicts he should handle them on his own: “Never tell the police. Don’t snitch. Take care of it.” “My father taught me how to fight with knives and my fists,” he tells me. “Why did you shoot those boys?” I ask. “You just do what you gotta do,” he replies.

Three weeks after we met, Robert Tallman pled guilty to the murders and received a life sentence, in exchange for the prosecution taking the death penalty off the table.

Many individuals who have grown up in communities with high levels of violence develop this sense that violence is a moral imperative when one is threatened, challenged, or disrespected—and that death is morally preferable to dishonor. This is particularly true when their families—like Robert’s mother and father—reinforce this moral damage through the messages they send their children about honor, conflict resolution, and the legitimacy of violence as a tool in interpersonal relations. Like Robert, they come to adapt their system of moral reasoning and behavior to include justification for aggression as a legitimate response to conflict, and as an appropriate form of social influence. When this belief system comes with a heightened sense of being at risk from assault by others, it becomes the war zone mentality.

Excerpt from LISTENING TO KILLERS, published by University of California Press. Copyright © 2015 by James Garbarino. Reprinted by permission of the author. Some names and identifying details have been altered.