I’ve been asked many very good questions about the work I do in the criminal cases. One of the most often asked is, “What do these people have in common?” This question resulted in my selecting four very different kinds of cases to write about, each defendant with a very different personality and life style. As adults they appeared to have nothing in common—except one resounding factor—a horrible childhood. I worked many hours searching out family members, teachers, neighbors, and talking for hours with them about childhood circumstances. Traveling into such places as inner city neighborhoods, backwoods family compounds, and isolated mountain trails led to some devastating revelations about how these individuals grew up. THE WITNESS describes my adventures into the early lives of these four very different adults who shared astounding similarities in how their early experiences shaped the behaviors that led them to ultimately live on death row.
Am I saying that people with a horrid childhood are destined to someday become a criminal? Absolutely not. For example, while the impact of childhood trauma runs wide and deep, there are also a world of possibilities for healing and overcoming tragedy and maltreatment. As a developmental epistemologist, one of my tasks is to look for patterns that emerge early and become stronger at each stage of life until solidified—or—be broken and replaced with a changed pattern. This kind of investigation often leads to a greater understanding of how a person thinks and how that thinking combines with feelings to result in how one acts. Unfolding the anatomy of a killer, while mind boggling and intriguing, is also one of the most challenging and awesome responsibilities when considering the full range of facts involved in a murder.