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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

What if your future hinged on the outcome of a psychological test? Well, today we have the first of a two-part series on a psychological test that has incredible power over the lives of criminals in the justice system. It's called the PCL-R.

NORRIS: It measures whether someone is a psychopath and it's used to help make decisions about parole and sentencing. It's even been used to help decide whether someone should be put to death.

Tomorrow, we will hear from the creator of the PCL-R, who says he now worries that his test is not being used properly.

But today, NPR's Alix Spiegel has the story of one prisoner whose chance at freedom hinges in part on this test.

ALIX SPIEGEL: The day sealed Robert Dixon's fate began with a bike ride. Dixon had asked his friend John Walker if he could hop on the handlebars of Walker's bike for a ride home. Both Walker and Dixon were young, around 20. Both had spent time in juvy, and both came from a tough part of Oakland - the kind of neighborhood where young men often carry guns.

So they were riding along when, Dixon says, Walker saw a young man headed in the opposite direction and had an idea - let's rob him.

Mr. ROBERT DIXON: He said to me, he says, hey, let's see what this guy got. I said no, come on, man, just take me home. He said, no, come on, this ain't going to take that long.

SPIEGEL: They caught up with the man a block later. And Dixon jumped off the bike to act as lookout, while Walker approached the man, pulled out a gun and asked for his necklace. Dixon could hear them arguing.

Mr. DIXON: Now, my main concern at this time is that I don't want to get caught doing what we're doing. So I'm looking around. I look at them. He's talking to him. I look again. I'm looking around to see if, you know, the cops or anybody see us out there doing what we're doing. And pow - the gun goes off.

SPIEGEL: Dixon says he never saw it coming. He says Walker himself seemed surprised.

Mr. DIXON: What I saw was shock - that he was in shock that he had just pulled that trigger. And so, you know, I said what happened? He looked at me and he didn't answer me. He just ran.

SPIEGEL: Two years later, in December of 1985, Robert Dixon got 15 years to life with the possibility of parole for acting as an accessory to murder.

Now, this was not Robert 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, 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. That was his life before the crime.

(Soundbite of metal gate closing)

Unidentified Man #1: Get me out, give me a date! Give me a date! I need freedom.

SPIEGEL: I went to interview Robert Dixon in a maximum-security prison in Vacaville, California. Twenty-six years later, he is still in prison for his crime, in part because the state of California has used a test called the PCL-R to label Dixon as a psychopath.

So I went to see him because I wanted to understand more about him, who Robert Dixon is today.

Mr. DIXON: Let me go ahead and stamp the book for you.

Unidentified Man #2: All right.

Mr. DIXON: Okay, so this book is due back April 20th.

SPIEGEL: Dixon now has a prison job checking out books in the prison library. During a break from his shift, we sat together by a window near the magazine stacks. And Dixon told me that today he is a completely different man, someone interested not in darkness, but in light.

Mr. DIXON: I'm not proud of my life. You know, I've hurt people. I've disappointed myself. I've ruined my life, and I'm doing everything that I can to salvage some part of this second half of my life, you know.

SPIEGEL: Now, in the days before this meeting, I had talked to a small army of Robert Dixon's friends and family, who all told the same story. They all felt deep in their hearts that they knew Robert Dixon and that the man they knew was completely transformed, someone not a threat to anyone, someone ready to be released on parole.

The most surprising of these interviews was with Dixon's father, the man Robert once threatened to kill.

Mr. ROBERT DIXON, SR.: I've seen him change in the last 10 years, drastic change in him, especially with me. He got older and he kind of slowed down. And I got older and I slowed down. Age change everybody. I mean, it's a poor wind that don't change.

SPIEGEL: But this change wasn't simply a matter of getting older and mellowing. Dixon's friends and family argue his change has been the product of a very deliberate, even relentless effort on his part.

Here's Dixon's friend Bob Stuart.

Mr. BOB STUART: He knows that if he's going to get there, he's got to be twice as disciplined. He's got to do things above and beyond. And, quite frankly, he has.

SPIEGEL: When we met, Stuart regaled me with stories of how Dixon had worked to transform his life. He even had a folder with copies of Dixon's various certificates - business courses, self-improvement seminars, a thick stack documenting hours logged in a quest for change.

Stuart is very different from Dixon. He's a successful engineer who was introduced to Dixon by a mutual friend who saw that Dixon could use a mentor. And at first, he was just that, a mentor. But 16 years later, it's clear that that's changed.

Mr. STUART: I mean, I consider him my best friend, and likewise. And hard to believe that somebody inside prison would be. And I have, you know, good friends. But he's a person I trust absolutely, yeah.

SPIEGEL: So that's the way that Robert Dixon's friends and family see him, as a man once bad, deeply reformed, ready to be a law-abiding citizen.

But then there's California's view of Robert Dixon. Dr. Peter Bradlee is a private psychologist in Vacaville. And when I went to visit him, he showed me a stapled report with Dixon's name on top. The report argued that Robert Dixon is still a deeply dangerous criminal.

(Soundbite of flipping pages)

Dr. PETER BRADLEE (Psychologist): This is the main report that was done through the prison system.

SPIEGEL: The report Bradlee had was a psychological evaluation based largely on that test I mentioned earlier, called the PCL-R. To do the test, the psychologist reviews the prisoner's criminal history and does a two-hour interview, during which the psychologist tries to determine whether the inmate has a certain set of psychopathic personality traits.

Doctor Bradlee reads from the report.

Dr. BRADLEE: These items include: lack of remorse or guilt, pathological lying, conning - or manipulation - callousness or lack of empathy, poor behavior controls, glibness or superficial charm.

SPIEGEL: And so on.

Now, I did ask the California Department of Corrections if they would explain Robert Dixon's test results, because it is in large part because of this report that Dixon was denied parole at his last hearing in January. But they said no.

Dr. Bradlee, however, had reviewed Dixon's testing and read to me from the report.

Dr. BRADLEE: (Reading) Mr. Dixon obtained a total score on the PCL-R, which placed him in the high range of the clinical construct of psychopathy. He scored higher than 73 percent of those offenders on this instrument.

SPIEGEL: That's technical. What it means is that the psychologist saw Dixon not as a man reformed, but basically as a psychopath whose personality made it impossible for him to feel emotions as others do.

Psychopaths are seen as people not capable of empathy or guilt. And therefore, seen as people bound almost by their nature to do violence. Further, because psychopaths are so uninhibited by emotion, researchers say they're more comfortable lying, more effective at deceit, which might make them more successful when it comes to getting out of prison - which is why some people feel that this test, the PCL-R, is needed.

Dr. HENRY RICHARDS (Psychologist): Psychopaths are more likely to be released earlier than other offenders. And then they're more likely to reoffend faster.

SPIEGEL: This is Henry Richards, a psychologist who's a strong advocate of using the PCL-R to help make decisions about prisoners. Richards used to work at a prison in Maryland called the Patuxent Institution. He says that during the '90s, there was a budget crunch and Maryland decided to save some money by letting a bunch of inmates out of prison.

Now typically, Richards says, when prisoners are let out of prison early for budget reasons, there's a clear increase in the amount of crime.

Dr. RICHARDS: A constant barrage of incidents that make the community suspect that something bad is happening.

SPIEGEL: But as part of his decision-making, Richards says, he gave all the prisoners he considered releasing the PCL-R. He says there were very few crimes committed by the people he decided to release, even though his program released a lot of people.

Dr. RICHARDS: Probably close to 10,000 people. And we had only three major, serious crimes where individuals got injured, hurt, shot, murdered.

SPIEGEL: So, you see, this perception that the test is able to pick out the people most likely to commit crime is part of what gives the test so much power in our criminal justice system, including in California, where Robert Dixon got such a bad score.

Charles Carbone is Robert Dixon's lawyer. And when Dixon's psychological evaluation arrived in the mail, Carbone says he was devastated.

Mr. CHARLES CARBONE (Defense Attorney): I remember reading the report and feeling heartbroken because I knew no matter how hard I worked from that day forward, that when I brought him back to board, we were going to get denied.

SPIEGEL: The reality, Carbone says, is this: In California, not only the board but the governor must sign off on every parole granted. And there's just no benefit to being seen as soft on crime. That's why no governor will set someone free who got a high score on the psychopath test because there's just no political cover if that prisoner re-offends.

Mr. CARBONE: The headline will be: Well, The Psychologist Told You So. There is no political upside. They only have something to lose by allowing these lifers to go home.

SPIEGEL: Still, Carbone deeply believes in his client and isn't giving up. Robert Dixon, too, isn't giving up.

Mr. DIXON: I'm constantly thinking every day of what can I do other than just stay out of trouble because there's a lot of people that could just stay out of trouble, you know, but actually doing something - what can I do to convince them?

SPIEGEL: And his friends and family believe that the system will somehow look past Dixon's test score and see the person that they feel is really there. They even have a home ready for him once his efforts pay off.

Mr. DIXON SR: Okay, we're going to the bedroom where he'll stay.

SPIEGEL: When I went to visit Dixon's father at his house, he took me down a hallway and showed me a neatly prepared second bedroom. It was, he told me, for his son.

Mr. DIXON SR.: Okay, this is his room. There's a bed. There's a closet. This would be his dresser.

SPIEGEL: As I said before, for most of their lives, these two men had serious difficulties. But somehow that conflict has passed. Now, every other Sunday, Dixon Sr. goes to visit Dixon Jr. in prison. They don't talk about the past, he says, only the future.

Mr. DIXON SR.: We're going to do this, and we're going to do that. We're going to go fishing. We're going to do it. We're going to do it.

SPIEGEL: Dixon Jr., like his father, says he looks forward to this future. So I had to ask...

What if you don't, what if you don't get out of here?

Mr. DIXON: If I don't get out of here, then I have to make the best of where I live. You know, so I'm going to see my dad Saturday, and we're going to have a great time, you know.

SPIEGEL: Robert Dixon will have a new parole hearing in 2014. If he goes to that hearing with the psychological evaluation that he currently has, which he is slated to do, it is very likely that he will be denied parole.

So, which Robert Dixon is the real Robert Dixon? Can the test see something that his friends and family cannot? And how much should we rely on this test to help decide which prisoners should be treated more harshly and which are capable of reform?

Tomorrow, we will hear from the creator of the test, the Canadian psychologist Robert Hare. Hare believes he created a good test but fears it might be doing bad things.

Alix Spiegel, NPR News, Washington.

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