Can A Test Really Tell Who's A Psychopath? Twenty-six years after Robert Dixon Jr. went to prison for acting as an accessory to murder, friends and family swear that he is a new man, one committed to redeeming the second half of his life. But according to a test that holds incredible power — some say too much — in the U.S. justice system, Dixon is a psychopath, incapable of reform.
NPR logo

Can A Test Really Tell Who's A Psychopath?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/136619689/136682733" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Can A Test Really Tell Who's A Psychopath?

Can A Test Really Tell Who's A Psychopath?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/136619689/136682733" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

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

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

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

ALIX SPIEGEL: 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.

NORRIS: 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.

NORRIS: 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.

NORRIS: 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: 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)

U: Get me out, give me a date! Give me a date! I need freedom.

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

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

U: All right.

NORRIS: 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.

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

NORRIS: 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: Here's Dixon's friend Bob Stuart.

NORRIS: 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: 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.

NORRIS: 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: 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)

D: This is the main report that was done through the prison system.

SPIEGEL: Doctor Bradlee reads from the report.

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

D: (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: 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.

D: Psychopaths are more likely to be released earlier than other offenders. And then they're more likely to reoffend faster.

SPIEGEL: 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.

D: 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.

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

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

NORRIS: 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.

NORRIS: 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.

NORRIS: 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.

NORRIS: 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.

NORRIS: 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.

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

NORRIS: 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: Alix Spiegel, NPR News, Washington.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.