Listening to Killers

Read this example of a reaction paper on the book Listening to Killers: Lessons Learned from My Twenty Years as a Psychological Expert Witness in Murder Cases. The book discloses that most killers had a troubled upbringing and lived in crime-vested neighborhoods.

Crime is one of the major social concerns. Among the most common criminal activities is murder, which involves the conscious or unconscious killing of another person. It leads to a loss of life of the victim, destroys his or her dependents and relatives emotionally, and damages the economy through lost productivity and the cost of maintaining the incarcerated. James Garbarino’s book Listening to Killers: Lessons Learned from My Twenty Years as a Psychological Expert Witness in Murder Cases reveals that criminal activities are influenced by numerous factors specific to the individual, their circumstances, and the environment they are operating in. The book discloses that most killers had a troubled upbringing and lived in crime-vested neighborhoods, which altered their development and impaired their decision-making capacity as identified by David Farrington’s ICAP and Glen Walters’ Lifestyle Theory, and while some of them were resilient to their circumstances, sometimes this resilience broke, leading to horrifying and memorable cases.

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Similarities between the Offenders

Garbarino noted that most of the offenders he interviewed had a troubled upbringing. They had been exposed to different types of abuse that desensitized them and exposed them to violence that they then subjected others to. The author observed that a majority of killers were raised in neighborhoods where they experienced deprivation, poverty, violence, neglect, and abuse (Garbarino 11). With the violence being propagated by those close and known to them, these individuals suffered traumatic experiences that damaged and crippled their emotional and moral development. They became insensitive to other people’s pain and disoriented by suppressing some of the basic human instincts. As a result, they suffered rage, lack of empathy, and problems in regulating their emotions (Garbarino 139). The situation of how troubled childhood might lead to killing is evident in Duke Jimenez’s case. He stabbed an old woman 26 times just because she found him attempting a break-in. Garbarino described him as soft and passive but damaged emotionally due to being abandoned by his father as a child and having a negligent mother. He harbored severe psychological issues and drowned them with drugs, which further undermined his thinking capacity (Garbarino 105). Therefore, the rage he had been storing for years due to traumatic childhood exploded when he encountered Mrs. Teebee.

Garbarino also argued that people make decisions in a particular context, environment, place, and under specific pressures. He claimed that people are influenced by the experiences they have or are undergoing. Living in crime-vested areas increases the chance of engaging in antisocial behavior just as having negligent parents does. Garbarino classified such areas as ‘urban war zones’ that lead to the development of ‘war zone mentality’ that pre-disposes some people to violence. Such individuals become alert and the slightest provocation leads them to over-reaction (Garbarino 7). Moreover, they become hardened and respond to situations in any way possible without considering the consequences because they are already used to pain and suffering. The classic example here is where one person shoots his or her opponents when they make a move resembling them reaching for a gun. Such case occurred in St. Louis, Missouri in 1999, when Melvin Grandjean shot and killed Tyrone Banks because he reached under his jacket, which Grandjean viewed as threatening. Grandjean fired first purportedly in self-defense (Garbarino 38). His case is similar to that of Jimenez because both men had a crippling childhood. However, while Jimenez was abused, Grandjean lived in a violent neighborhood where gun altercations were regular. Even though these circumstances are different, they changed both men’s psyche irrevocably.

Garbarino argued that the majority of individuals he had represented made a decision to kill due to their own traumatic experiences. He also noted that while the accused were not insane in the sense of being mentally impaired, they were in a similar situation. The brutalities in their life experiences over the years had impaired their perception of morality, and therefore, at the time of committing the crime, they believed that they were doing the right thing (Garbarino 212). For this reason, while the suspects decided to harm the other person, their actions were motivated by unconscious and conscious forces caused by the extensive trauma. The perpetrators had no control over such forces. Garbarino (2015) concluded that people who are abused or who grow in ‘war zones’ have very few individuals that they genuinely care about. The rest of their decisions are based on situational and analytical factors, which in most cases favor their own interests. Not used to being taken care of, they will do what they feel is best for them.

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Case of Interest

The case that impressed me most was the case of Marvin Tolman who gunned down his wife and children by using a semiautomatic rifle and did not flee until he was arrested by the SWAT team. There was established that his wife planned to divorce him and the three stepchildren he was raising had regained contacts with their biological fathers. As a result, psychologists found that rejection, sensitivity, and separation anxiety were the triggers of Marvin’s violence. This case attracted my attention because, after the arrest, Marvin claimed that he did not remember killing his family. His claims were substantiated by mental health specialists who asserted that he was telling the truth. They stated that the suspect was suffering from dissociative amnesia that made him lose his memory of the incidence due to its traumatic nature (Garbarino 37). They also claimed that the realization was so intense that his brain could not handle it. However, served with the extensive evidence of the case, the trial bench convicted Marvin Tolman of multiple first-degree murders and sentenced him to death for the decisions he made (Garbarino 37). The judgment caught my attention because Marvin was jailed for the choice he made but could not remember making.

I could not help but think that something must have occurred before the shooting incidence that interfered with his mental endowment and altered it. Therefore, I was concerned that maybe he was indeed mentally unconscious when he massacred his family, which makes his verdict debatable. According to the U.S. laws, an individual cannot be held accountable unless it can be determined that they were mentally capable of planning and committing the crime (Garbarino 21). For this reason, further mental analyses should have been conducted to assess Marvin’s condition before sentencing him to death.


Garbarino identified the fact that humans can withstand traumatic experiences — however, this ability is only applicable to a certain point and it can be eroded if strained. He determined that if an individual is exposed to traumatic factors for a long time, which is associated with developmental problems, they become psychopathic. Their social-cognitive ability is impaired and they are predisposed to antisocial behavior. The effects are determined by the extent of pre-disposition, where individuals that suffer years of violence, deficiency, and unstable upbringing are permanently damaged. They suffer developmental problems and emotional instability, making them unable to maintain personal development (Garbarino 131). As a result, they are pre-disposed to violence and a minor trigger causes them to engage in criminal behavior.

There are many examples in Garbarino’s book that show that a troubled upbringing is a trigger of future explosive behavior. For instance, while examining Andrew Dickson, the psychologist learned that the 24-years old suffered from direct and indirect trauma. His family’s life was full of domestic violence, alcohol abuse and drug abuse, rape, and mental health problems. There was no love there and Andrew suffered rejection from his mother and father. He also lacked a role model because his father was bitter, miserable, and cruel. As a result, he had anger problems, depression, impulsiveness, behavioral problems, and penchant for violence (Garbarino 136). In the end, unable to tolerate such toxic environment any more, Dickson committed a violent murder. His rough upbringing damaged his sensitivity and ability to withstand any form of behavior that reminded him of his family. Therefore, his resilience was eroded. However, Garbarino mentions that it can be nurtured back.

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Criminological Theories

One of the crime theories applicable to the perspective furthered by Garbarino is David Farrington’s Integrated Cognitive Antisocial Potential (ICAP) Theory that claims that specific factors experienced by an individual propagate criminal behaviors. In explaining delinquency and in agreement with Garbarino’s ‘urban war zones’ approach, the ICAP theory determines that many factors in an individual’s growing environment cultivate antisocial behavior. Farrington identified crime-filled neighborhoods, delinquent parents, siblings, bullying peers, uncaring schools and communities, low income, unemployment, school failure, poor upbringing, anxiety, and broken families as factors that predict future criminal behaviors (Walsh and Jorgensen 215). The individual cultivates his or her antisocial behaviors from an early age, develops attachment to criminal gangs, and suffers from impulsiveness.

Such people are the potential offenders who will easily commit a crime with the slightest provocation or presentation of an opportunity. However, the theorist observed that the offenders actively engage in cognitive decision making where they analyze the decision, its costs, benefits, opportunities, probabilities, and scripts (Walsh and Jorgensen 215). These descriptions match Melvin Grandjean’s case where he shot and killed Tyrone Banks. They lived in a crime-vested neighborhood and were the gang members. As a result, before the incident, he had been witnessing murders and violence from an early age and it predisposed him to crimes. During the incidence, he and Banks were in a pre-arranged fight with a member of a rival group (Garbarino 38). Therefore, the case should be explored from the point of the offender’s background and not just based on a perpetrator-victim spectrum.

Another critical theory applicable to the discussion is Glen Walters’ Lifestyle Theory where he argues that criminal behavior is cultivated through a life pattern that conditions an individual to make particular bad choices. The offenders still make the decisions themselves, though, which makes them liable. However, their cognition may be impaired due to the troubled upbringing that distorts their perception of morality and the capacity to make the right choice. Walters identified that criminals are characterized by impulsiveness, antisocial behavior, irresponsibility, low IQ, and deviant behavior (Walsh and Jorgensen 169). However, the theorist recognizes that the individual’s traits and behavior play a critical role in the decision to commit a crime, with or without the propagating factors. He identified the case of Jimmy Caine who came from a middle-class family and was engaged in numerous crimes, including murder (Walsh and Jorgensen 169). As a result, Walters concluded that the offenses resulted from faulty thinking and behavioral problems but were propelled by social-environmental stressors.

General Impression of the Book

The book is a masterpiece because it combines scientific knowledge, real-life examples, and expert insights. Garbarino explored the perspectives of other criminology and related disciplines’ researchers on the issues he was addressing. For example, he described Stephen Harris, Marco Picchioni, and psychologist Laura Stockdale’s perspectives on empathy and its role in propagating violent behavior (140). This strategy helps to enhance the authority of his work because it provides knowledge based on verified data. As a result, the information Garbarino offers to his audience is precise and devoid of biases.

Garbarino extensively uses real-life examples from his and others’ practice experiences to substantiate the arguments forwarded. Some of the cases mentioned were featured and popularized by the media, and therefore, some readers may be aware of them. However, as opposed to the reports read in newspapers or watched on TV, this time, the readers are learning of the issue from the point of view of an insider who was at the center of the trial and who had access to secrets and revelations no investigating officer did. The readers get into the mind of the offender and understand the occurrences, however gruesome they are, from the viewpoint of the perpetrator. By mentioning different cases combined by a particular trend, Garbarino helps to establish a verified criminal behavior model. As a result, while the justice system may want to oppose such conclusion, lawbreakers are made by society and it should take partial responsibility for the crimes they commit.

Garbarino substantiates the knowledge he presents with his own expert insights derived from decades of working as a psychologist and expert witness for the accused, mainly in murder cases. While reading the book, it was evident that his work process was not motivated by money only, but also by a desire to unravel the truth and build knowledge. For example, Garbarino describes the case of Billy Bob Wilson, a murder suspect he interviewed to represent him later as an expert witness, which happened in 2004 (48). Garbarino’s team lost the case and the individual was convicted of the crime. However, Garbarino felt that there was something that he was yet to discover about this person. As a result, when he got the chance to return to the same prison in 2010, he requested to interview the now-prisoner. During the interrogation, he learned some unique positive characters of Billy and his attachment to a pet he had at a young age, which showed that beneath the killer was a nice person (Garbarino 48). The situation showed his commitment to developing knowledge and enhancing the understanding of criminals for achieving their fair treatment.

The book is therefore educative and informative. It is educational because it provides scientifically collected and synthesized data that are intended to further the knowledge about murderers. Importantly, the information is provided in a simple language that is easy to understand even for beginners who study criminology at their initial years in college. As a result, this material is relevant to scholars on different levels. Another educative characteristic of the book is that it laid a foundation for psychologists on the way to interact with offenders and get them to talk about themselves and their perception of the crime they committed. Using Garbarino’s book as a guide and applying the described knowledge, the reader can embark on further studies of available content to enhance their own practice in understanding the psychology of offenders.

The book is also informative because it provides deeper insights into some of the most publicized murder cases. By reading the material, the readers access knowledge they have never obtained before about the offender, their past, and the situations that drove them to break the law directly, and they do it from the view of the person who collected this knowledge. As a result, the book is perfect for anyone keen to enhance their competence about murder cases because it presents them from a different perspective.

Crime is a major problem in most countries and it has extensive costs. Therefore, it is necessary to develop a deep understanding of the problem to generate the best strategies to manage it. James Garbarino made such an attempt in his book where he explored the psychology of criminals. His findings from the data collected through advanced interviews reveal that the perpetrators were mainly shaped by the environments they were born, raised, and were living in. They suffered violence, abuse, rejection, isolation, and the lack of familial connections. This information should be applied to reforming strategies to ensure that collective measures are put in place to offer more positive environments for children’s growth and their subsequent development.

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