Can A Test Really Tell Who’s A Psychopath?


by Alix Spiegel

At left, a school portrait of Robert Dixon Jr., on the mantle of his father's home in Stockton, Calif. Though friends and family swear he is a reformed man, Dixon is unlikely to win parole because a test has determined he is a psychopath.

Lianne Milton for NPR
a school portrait of Robert Dixon Jr., on the mantle of his father’s home in Stockton, Calif. Though friends and family swear he is a reformed man, Dixon is unlikely to win parole because a test has determined he is a psychopath.

In November 2009, Robert Dixon took a test to determine whether he was a psychopath.

After 26 years in prison, he was due for a parole hearing. In California, before a “lifer” like Dixon appears before the parole board, a state psychologist must first evaluate whether he poses a risk of further violence if released. To do that, the psychologist administers a test — the PCL-R, or Psychopathy Checklist-Revised — designed to measure whether that inmate is a psychopath.

This test has incredible power in the American criminal justice system. It’s used to make decisions such as what kind of sentence a criminal gets and whether an inmate is released on parole. It has even been used to help decide whether someone should be put to death.

Many psychologists believe that psychopaths are so devoid of normal human emotion, so cold and remorseless and impulsive, that they are bound, almost by their very nature, to do harm and violence.

Robert Dixon Sr. holds a photograph of his son, Robert Dixon Jr. (far right), his son's mentor Bob Stuart, and himself (far left).

Lianne Milton for NPR
Robert Dixon Sr. holds a photograph of his son, Robert Dixon Jr. (far right), his son’s mentor Bob Stuart, and himself (far left).

And so Dixon found himself sitting across a table from a no-nonsense female psychologist, answering a series of questions about his family and troubled youth.

The woman, Dixon says, didn’t look at him. Instead, she stared at the computer, methodically entering his answers, her face dimly lit by the screen.

They talked for over an hour. Then the psychologist thanked him, closed her computer and went away.

Several months later, the results came back.

“Mr. Dixon obtained a total score on the PCL-R which placed him in the high range of the clinical construct of psychopathy,” the psychologist wrote.

Basically, she’d concluded that Dixon was a psychopath — the first time he’d ever received such a diagnosis. It was suddenly extremely unlikely that Dixon would be paroled.

A Robbery Gone Wrong

The story of Dixon’s incarceration begins 28 years ago, in the winter of 1983, when Dixon and his friend John Walker decided to rob a young man they saw walking down the street in their Oakland, Calif., neighborhood.

Dixon was the lookout. He positioned himself at a distance while Walker approached the man, pulled out a gun and asked for his belongings. The crime was supposed to be quick — grab the wallet and go — but something went wrong.

Dixon remembers hearing Walker’s gun fire, then turning to find their robbery victim lying dead on the ground.

“What I saw when I looked at my co-defendant was shock — he was in shock that he had just pulled that trigger,” Dixon says. “And so I said, you know, ‘What happened!’ ”

“He looked at me and he didn’t answer me. He just ran.”

For the crime of being an accessory to murder, Dixon got 15 years to life with the possibility of parole.

A Long Criminal History

This wasn’t Dixon’s first crime.

As a teen he was convicted of date-raping one woman and beating another. Since childhood, in fact, Dixon’s life had been deeply disturbed: He tried to commit suicide at 10, and at 12 he threatened to kill himself and his father, who, according to records, often beat him. He was in and out of detention for the rest of his teens — until the robbery put him in prison.

Robert Dixon Sr., outside his home in Stockton, Calif., on May 14. His son, Robert Dixon Jr., was denied parole after a psychological evaluation deemed him a psychopath.

Lianne Milton for NPR
Robert Dixon Sr., outside his home in Stockton, Calif., on May 14. His son, Robert Dixon Jr., was denied parole after a psychological evaluation deemed him a psychopath.

But friends and family say that since his incarceration, they’ve seen a radical change in Dixon. They all believe deeply that the man they know is transformed and no longer a threat to anyone.

One of those true believers is Dixon’s father, Robert Dixon Sr. “I’ve seen him change in the last 10 years — drastic change in him, especially with me,” Dixon Sr. says. “He got older and he kind of slowed down.”

“Age change everybody,” he adds. “I mean, it’s a poor wind that don’t change.”

Continue Reading @ NPR

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