SFWRITER.COM > Novels > Quantum Night > Opening Chapters
by Robert J. Sawyer
Copyright © 2016 by Robert J. Sawyer. All Rights Reserved.
The call had come just about a year ago. "Hello?" I'd said into the black handset of my office phone.
"Professor James Marchuk?"
I swung my feet up on my reddish-brown desk and leaned back. "Speaking."
"My name is Juan Garcia. I'm part of the defense team for Devin Becker, one of the Savannah Prison guards."
I thought about saying, "Well, you've got your work cut out for you," but instead simply prodded him to go on. "Yes?"
"My firm would like to engage you as an expert witness in Mr. Becker's trial. The prosecution is seeking the death penalty. We're likely to lose on the facts the security-camera video is damning as hell but we can at least keep Becker from being executed if we get the jury to agree that he couldn't help himself."
I frowned. "And you think he couldn't because ...?"
"Because he's a psychopath. You said it in your blog entry on Leopold and Loeb: you can't execute someone for being who they are."
I nodded although Garcia couldn't see it. In 1924, two wealthy university students, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, had killed a boy just for kicks. Leopold considered himself and Loeb to be exemplars of Nietzsche's Übermenschen and thus exempt from laws governing ordinary men. Supermen they weren't, but psychopaths they surely were. Their parents engaged none other than Clarence Darrow to represent them. In a stunning twelve-hour-long closing argument, Darrow made the same defense Garcia was apparently now contemplating: claiming Becker couldn't be executed for doing what his nature dictated he do.
I took my feet off the desk and leaned forward. "And is Becker a psychopath?" I asked.
"That's the problem, Professor Marchuk," said Garcia. "The D.A. had a Hare assessment done, which scored Becker at seventeen way below what's required for psychopathy. But we think their assessor is wrong; our guy squeaks him into psychopathy with a score of thirty-one. And, well, with your new procedure, we can prove to the jury that our score is the right one."
"You know my test has never been accepted in a court of law?"
"I'm aware of that, Professor. I'm also aware that no one has even tried to introduce it into evidence yet. But I've got your paper in Nature Neuroscience right here. That it was published in such a prestigious, peer-reviewed journal gets our foot in the door; Georgia follows the Daubert standard for admissibility. But we need you you personally, the lead author on the paper to use your technique on Becker and testify about the results if we've got any chance of having the court accept the evidence."
"What if I show that Becker isn't a psychopath?"
"Then we'll still pay you for your time."
"And bury the results?"
"Professor, we're confident of the outcome."
It sounded worthwhile but so was what I did here. "I have a busy teaching schedule, and "
"I know you do, Professor. In fact, I'm looking at it right now on your university's website. But the trial probably won't come up until you're on summer break, and, frankly, this is a chance to make a difference. I've read your Reasonably Moral blog. You're against the death penalty; well, here's a chance to help prevent someone from being executed."
My computer happened to be displaying the lesson plan for that afternoon's moral-psych class, in which I was planning to cite the study of Princeton seminary students who, while rushing to give a presentation on the parable of the Good Samaritan, passed by a man slumped over in an alleyway, ignoring him because they were in a hurry.
Practice what you teach, I always say. "All right. Count me in."
Shortly after I came off the Jetway into the international terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, I went into a little shop to buy a bottle of Coke Zero here, in Atlanta, headquarters of Coca-Cola, there was no sign of Pepsi anywhere. Without thinking, I handed the woman at the cash register a Canadian five.
"What's this?" she said, taking it.
"Oh! Sorry." I dug into my wallet I always have to carefully look at US bills to make sure of the denomination, since they're all the same color and found one with Abe Lincoln's face on it.
There was no one else waiting to buy anything, and the woman seemed intrigued by the blue polymer banknote I'd handed her. After examining it carefully, she looked up at me, and said, "There's no mention of God. Ain't you a God-fearing country up there?"
"Um, well, ah, we believe in the separation of church and state."
She handed the bill back to me. "Honey," she said, "there ain't no such thing." She frowned, as if recalling something. "Y'all are socialists up there, right?"
Actually, until recently, Canada had had a much more conservative leader than the United States did. When Stephen Harper came to office in 2006, George W. Bush had been in the White House and, to liberal Canadian sensibilities the kind found on university campuses he seemed the lesser of two evils. But once Barack Obama was elected, Canada had by far the more right-wing leader. Harper managed to hold on to power for almost a decade, but Canada was now ruled by the Liberal Party.
"Kind of," I said, although I suspected her understanding of the term "socialism" was different from mine. I handed her the American five, got my Canadian bill back plus my change, took my pop, or soda, or whatever it was here.
This was my first time flying in the States since Quinton Carroway had been sworn in as president, and I was surprised to hear that the constant warnings about terrorist threats over the public-address system were back; they'd disappeared under Obama but had returned with a vengeance. The old wording had invari ably been, "The Homeland Security threat level is orange" which was only semi-effective propaganda because you had to have memorized the code to know that orange was the new black the thing white folk were supposed to fear most being one step shy of an imminent attack. The new message, which played every three minutes or so, was much more direct, and, unless I missed my guess, the voice was the president's own distinctive baritone: "Be on guard! A terrorist attack can occur at any time."
And speaking of propaganda, despite Atlanta also being home to CNN, Fox News was on the big-screen TV hanging down like a steam-shovel scoop from the ceiling as I arrived at baggage claim. Orwell had been right that mind-controlling messages would be pumped twenty-four hours a day through telescreens, and he'd have recognized the ones in the airport with no way to turn them off. What would have astounded him is that many millions of people would voluntarily tune into them in their own homes, often for hours on end.
I recognized Megyn Kelly although I usually only saw her in unflattering clips on The Daily Show. "Look," she said, "it is a fact that this guy was in our country illegally."
"And for that he should have died?" said a man clearly the day's sacrificial liberal lamb.
"I'm not saying that," said Kelly. "Obviously, what these three men did was not the way to handle it."
"No?" said the man. "What they did was exactly what Governor McCharles intended, isn't it?"
"Oh, come on!" snapped the other woman on the panel. "The Texas governor simply meant "
"The whole point of the McCharles Act," said the man, "was to provoke attacks like this. Redefining homicide as the killing of a legal resident! What is that, except a wink-and-a-nod to every yahoo out there that the cops will look the other way if an undocumented immigrant turns up dead?"
"The point," said the same woman, "was merely that these illegal aliens can't flout the law and then expect to be protected by it."
"For God's sake!" said the man, who was getting red in the face. "McCharles is setting things up for a pogrom!"
I grabbed my bag, then headed off to find a taxi, grateful to be leaving the arguing panelists behind.
I beheld the monster.
One of them, anyway. There were six according to the indictments; nine, if you believed the Huffington Post, which argued that three other corrections officers who should also have been charged had gotten off scot-free. But this one, everyone agreed, had been the ringleader: Devin Becker was the man who had incited the other guards and he was the only one who had actually killed somebody.
"Thirty minutes," said a burly sergeant as Becker folded his lanky form onto the metal seat. The irony wasn't lost on me: Becker himself was now in the care of a prison guard. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who indeed watches the watchers?
Becker had high cheekbones, and the weight he'd lost since the notorious video had been recorded made them even more promi nent. That the skin pulled taut across them was bone white only added to the ghastly appearance; put a black hood over his head and he could have played chess for a man's soul. "Who are you?" he asked, a slight drawl protracting his words.
"Jim Marchuk. I'm a psychologist at the University of Manitoba, in Winnipeg."
Becker curled his upper lip. "I don't wanna be part of any damn experiment."
I thought about saying, "You already have been." I thought about saying, "The experiment has been done time and again, and this is just another pointless replication." I even thought about saying, "If only this were an experiment, we could pull the plug on it, just like Zimbardo finally did at Stanford." But what I actually said was, "I'm not here to conduct an experiment. I'm going to be an expert witness at your trial."
"For the defense or the prosecution?"
Becker relaxed somewhat, but his tone was suspicious. "I can't afford fancy experts."
"Your father is paying, I'm told."
"My father." He sneered the words.
"If he really cared, it'd be him, not you, sitting there."
"He hasn't come to see you?"
Becker shook his head.
"Has any of your family?"
"My sis. Once."
"Ah," I said.
Those words hung in the air for a moment. The New York Times front-page article about the Savannah Prison guards had been headlined "America's Shame."
"Well," I said gently, "perhaps we can convince them not to be."
"With psychological bullshit?" He made a "pffft!" sound through thin lips.
"With the truth."
"The truth is my own lawyer says I'm a psychopath. Norman Fucking Bates." He shook his head. "What the hell kind of defense is that, anyway? Y'all must be out of your minds."
I didn't have much sympathy for this guy; what he'd done was horrific. But I am a teacher: ask me a question, and I'm compelled to answer that's my nature. "You killed someone in cold blood, and the court would normally call that first-degree murder, right? But suppose an MRI showed you had a brain tumor that affected your behavior. The jury might be inclined to say you couldn't help yourself and let you off. You don't have a tumor, but my research shows that psychopathy is just as much a clear-cut physical condition, and should likewise mitigate responsibility."
"Huh," he said. "And do you think I'm a psycho?"
"I honestly don't know," I replied, placing my briefcase on the wooden table and snapping the clasps open. "So let's find out."
"Professor Marchuk, were you present when my learned opponent, the District Attorney, introduced one of her expert witnesses, psychiatrist Samantha Goldsmith?"
I tried to sound calm but, man, this was nerve-wracking. Oh, sure, I was used to the Socratic method in academic settings, but here, in this sweltering courtroom, a person's life was on the line. I leaned forward. "Yes, I was."
Juan Garcia's chin jutted like the cattle catcher on a locomotive. "Sitting there, in the third row, weren't you?"
"Do you recall Dr. Goldsmith giving a clinical opinion of the defendant, Devin Becker?"
"And what was her diagnosis?"
"She contended that Mr. Becker is not a psychopath."
"And did Dr. Goldsmith explain the technique by which she arrived at that conclusion?"
I nodded. "Yes, she did."
"Are you familiar with the technique she used?"
"Intimately. I'm certified in administering it myself."
Juan had a way of moving his head that reminded me of a hawk, pivoting instantly from looking this way to that way; he was now regarding the jury. "Perhaps you can refresh the memories of these good men and women, then. What technique did Dr. Goldsmith employ?"
"The Hare Psychopathy Checklist, Revised," I said.
"Commonly called ‘the Hare Checklist,’ or ‘the PCL-R,’ correct?"
A quick pivot back toward me. "And, before we go further, again, just to remind us, a psychopath is ...?"
"An individual devoid of empathy and conscience, a person who doesn't feel for other people someone who only cares about his or her own self-interest."
"And the Hare Checklist? Refresh the jury on that, please."
"Robert Hare identified twenty characteristics that define a psychopath everything from glibness and superficial charm to promiscuity and lack of remorse."
"And, again, remind us: to be a psychopath, do you need to exhibit all twenty of the traits he identified?"
I shook my head. "No. There's a numerical scoring system."
"The subject fills out a form?"
"No, no. A person specially trained in Professor Hare's technique conducts an interview with the subject and also reviews police records, psychiatric reports, employment history, education, and so on. The expert then scores the subject on each of the twenty traits, assigning a zero if a given trait pathological lying, say is not present; a one if it matches to a certain extent perhaps they lie all the time in personal relationships but never in business dealings, or vice versa; and a two if there's a reasonably good match for the trait in most aspects of the person's life."
"And the average total score on the twenty items is?"
"For normal people? Very low: four out of a possible maximum of forty."
"And what score do you need to be a psychopath?"
"Thirty or above."
"And do you recall the score Dr. Goldsmith assigned to the defendant Mr. Becker?"
"I do. She gave him a seventeen."
"Professor Marchuk, were you also here in this courtroom when we the defense presented an expert witness, another psychologist, prior to bringing you to the stand?"
I nodded again. "I was."
"That psychologist, Dr. Gabor Bagi, testified that he, too, administered the same psychopathy test to Devin Becker. Do you recall that?"
"And did Dr. Bagi come up with the same score as Dr. Goldsmith?"
"No. He gave Mr. Becker a score of thirty-one."
Juan did a good job of sounding astonished. "Thirty-one out of forty? Whereas Dr. Goldsmith came up with seventeen?"
His head snapped toward the jury. "How do you account for the discrepancy?"
"Well, although Professor Hare's checklist is supposed to be as objective as possible, his test is prone to some inter-rater disagreement in non-research clinical settings. But a difference of fourteen points?" I shrugged my shoulders beneath my blue suit. "I can't account for that."
Snapping back to me: "Still, our score of thirty-one puts Mr. Becker over the legal line into psychopathy with room to spare, while the score Dr. Goldsmith obtained leaves Mr. Becker far away from being a psychopath, correct?"
"And, given that the State is seeking the death penalty, the question of whether or not Mr. Becker is a clinical psychopath whether or not he had any volition in his behavior is crucial in determining his sentence, which puts the good men and women of the jury in the unenviable, but regrettably common, position of having to choose between conflicting expert testimonies, isn't that so?"
"No," I said.
"I beg your pardon, Professor Marchuk?"
My heart was pounding, but I managed to keep my tone absolutely level. "No. Dr. Goldsmith is dead wrong and Dr. Bagi is right. Devin Becker is a psychopath, and I can prove it prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt."
"A simple yes-or-no test for psychopathy?" Heather said as she looked across the restaurant table at me. "Surely that's not possible."
"Oh, but it is. And I've discovered it."
My sister was one of my favorite people, and I was one of hers; I think we'd have been friends even if we hadn't been related. She was forty-two, almost exactly three years older than me, and worked as a corporate litigator in Calgary. Every now and then her work brought her here to Winnipeg, and whenever it did we hung out together.
"Oh, come on," she said. "Surely there's a spectrum for psychopathy."
I shook my head. "Everyone wants everything to be on a spectrum these days. Autism is the classic example: ‘autism spectrum disorder.’ We have this desire for things to be analog, to have infinite gradations. But humans fundamentally aren't analog; life isn't analog. It's digital. Granted, it's not base-two binary; it's base-four. Literally base-four: the four bases adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine that makes up the genetic code. There's nothing analog about that, and there's nothing analog about most of the human condition: you're either alive or dead; you either do or don't have the genes for Alzheimer's; and you either are or aren't a psychopath."
"Okay, fine. So how do you know? What's the binary test for psychopathy?"
"You ever see The Silence of the Lambs?"
She nodded, honey-colored hair touching her shoulders as she did so. "Sure. Read the book, too."
I was curious as to whether she'd picked it up after she'd started dating Gustav. "When?" I asked offhandedly.
"The movie? When I was in law school. The book? Maybe ten years ago."
I resisted shaking my head. Gustav had only been on the scene for six months now, but I was sure he was a psychopath. Not the violent sort that Thomas Harris had depicted in his novel psychopathy was indeed binary, but it manifested itself in different ways; in Gustav's case, that meant narcissistic, manipulative, and selfish behavior. A self-styled actor IMDb had no entry for him he apparently lived off a succession of professional women; my ever-kind-hearted sister, so sharp in legal matters, seemed utterly oblivious to this. Or maybe not: I'd attempted to broach the topic a couple of times before, but she'd always shut me down, saying she was happy, all right?, and I should let her be.
"Well," I said, "in the movie The Silence of the Lambs, remember the first interview between Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter? Anthony Hopkins absolutely nails one aspect of psychopaths at least as much as someone who actually isn't one can. He looks right at Clarice and says" and here I did my best impersonation of Hopkins's cultured hiss "‘First principles, Clarice. Of each particular thing ask: what is it in itself? What is its nature?’ And then, the most memorable part, as his eyes drill into her and he says, ‘What does he do, this ... man ... you ... seek?’ Remember that?"
Heather shuddered a little. "Oh, yes."
"Jodie Foster's response ‘He kills women’ is supposed to be the chilling part, but it isn't. It's Lecter's stare, the way he looks right at Clarice, unblinking, unflinching. I've seen that stare in the flesh, from real psychopaths in jails. It's the most unnerving thing about them."
"I bet," said Heather. She'd ordered mozzarella sticks as an appetizer; I'd been out with her and Gustav and seen him veto her choices of anything fattening. She took one of the sticks now and dipped it in marinara sauce.
"But, you know," I said, "good as he is, Anthony Hopkins is only simulating the psychopathic stare. He can't do it quite right."
"How do you mean?"
"A real psychopath looks at you not just without blinking much although that certainly adds to the reptilian effect but also without performing microsaccades."
Heather had heard me talk about them before. Microsaccades are involuntary jerks as the eyeball rotates two degrees or less; they occur spontaneously whenever you stare at something for several seconds. Their purpose is debated, although the most common theory is that they cause the neurons perceiving an object to refresh so that the image doesn't fade.
Heather's eyebrows rose above her wire-frame glasses. "Really?"
I nodded. "Yup. The paper's coming up in Nature Neuroscience."
"Way to go!" But then she frowned. "Why would that be, though? What have microsaccades got to do with psychopathy?"
"I'm not sure," I admitted, "but I've demonstrated the lack in forty-eight out of fifty test subjects, all of whom had scored thirty-two or above on the PCL-R."
"What about the other two?"
"Not psychopaths; I'm convinced of it. And that's the problem with the PCL-R: it's not definitive. Bob Hare got pissed several years ago when a pop-sci book called The Psychopath Test came out. It implied anyone could properly assess whether their neighbors or bosses or even casual acquaintances were psychopaths. As Hare said, it takes a week of intensive training to be able to score his twenty variables properly, and that's on top of formal psychological or psychiatric education. But his test can have false positives if a clinician miscategorizes something, or assigns a score of two when only a one is really warranted or if the psychopath is good at evading detection."
"Ah," said Heather. "But, um, how do you know Anthony Hopkins isn't a psychopath?" Her tone was light. "I mean, think of the parts he's played not just Hannibal Lecter but also Alfred Hitchcock, a guy who was obsessed with making a movie about a psycho and who had a lot of callous traits himself. Maybe it's typecasting."
"I actually thought about that. Hopkins also played Nixon and Captain Bligh, after all arguably a couple of other psychopaths."
"So I got the 4K Ultra disc of Silence of the Lambs. That film was shot in thirty-five millimeter, and 4K scanning is sufficient to capture all the resolution of the original film stock; it was clear enough in the close-ups when he's staring at Clarice to check. His eyes were indeed performing microsaccades."
Heather smiled. "So much for Method acting."
Her mozzarella sticks looked yummy, but I couldn't have one. "Yeah. Still, Hitler had an unnerving stare, too. He'd lock his eyes on people and hold the gaze much longer than normal. There's no footage of him sharp enough to show whether or not he was doing microsaccades, but I'm sure he wasn't."
"But I still don't get the why of it," said Heather. "What has the lack of microsaccades got to do with being a psychopath? I mean, okay, I can see how it could account for the stare ..."
"It's more than that," I said. "You know, a lot of the world's most-cutting-edge work in psychopathy has been done here in Canada ... which says something, I'm sure. Not only is Bob Hare Canadian he's emeritus now at UBC but so is Angela Book. She published a study in 2009 called ‘Psychopathic Traits and the Perception of Victim Vulnerability.’ That study and subsequent ones have shown that psychopaths have an almost preternatural ability to target already wounded people.
"In one of my own experiments, I made high-resolution videos of a group of female volunteers, some of whom had been assaulted in the past and some of whom hadn't, milling about in a room with some male grad students. I then showed the footage to a group of men, asking them to pick out which females had been previously assaulted. For normal men, the success rate was no better than chance: they simply couldn't tell and so just guessed. But the psychopaths averaged eighty percent correct.
"When I asked the psychopaths how they could tell, their answers ranged from the not-very-helpful ‘it's obvious’ to the significant ‘I can see it in their faces.’ And apparently they could. Human faces are in constant, subtle motion, exhibiting fleeting microexpressions that last between a twenty-fifth and a fifteenth of a second. When a psychopath turns on the psychopathic stare, free of microsaccades, he can clearly see the microexpressions. In the case of the previously abused women, an ever-so-brief look of fear might pass over their faces when a man looks at them, and not only do the psychopaths notice it but they gravitate toward those exhibiting such things."
"Holy shit," said Heather.
The server arrived with Heather's Cobb salad. "Go ahead," I said.
She took a forkful. "What about sociopaths as opposed to psychopaths?"
"Po-tay-toe, po-tah-toe. Although some clinicians mostly Americans, come to think of it still try to distinguish between the two, the DSM-5 lumps them together. You know, much of the dialog in the movie version of The Silence of the Lambs comes straight out of the novel, but in the book Lecter is described as ‘a pure sociopath,’ whereas in the film, they changed it to ‘a pure psychopath.’ The distinction, if there is one, either comes down to etiology those like me who prefer the term ‘psychopathy’ think the cause is mostly a difference in the brain; those who prefer ‘sociopathy‘ think society must have shaped the person or down to how the condition manifests itself. Some say the classic glib and charming but totally heartless guy that's a psychopath; if it's more of a regular schlub who just happens to lack conscience and empathy, he's a sociopath. Regardless, my technique detects them both. Still ..."
She looked at me expectantly. "Yeah?"
"You know the difference between a psychopath and a homeopath?"
She shook her head.
"Some psychopaths do no harm."
"Ha!" She ate a forkful of salad, then, "So, how precisely does your method work? How do you conduct the test?"
"Well, microsaccades are a fixational eye movement they occur only when your gaze is fixed on something. And to get a really solid, really good track, I don't normally use film. Rather, I use a modified set of ophthalmologist's vision-testing goggles. I get the suspected psychopath to wear them and simply ask him or her to stare for ten seconds at a dot displayed by the goggles. Sensors check to see if the eyes stay rock-steady or if they jerk a bit. If the former, the guy's a psychopath, I guarantee it. If the latter if the subject is performing microsaccades he isn't. You can't fake microsaccades; the smallest volitional eye shift anyone can do is much bigger. As long as the person doesn't have an eye-movement disorder, such as congenital or acquired nystagmus, which would be obvious before you did the test, with my technique, there are no false positives. If I say you're a psychopath, you bloody well are."
"Wow," said Heather. "Can I borrow them?"
Maybe I'd underestimated her; perhaps she was on to Gustav after all. "No," I said, "but invite me for Christmas and I'll bring them along."
"Deal," she said, spearing a cherry tomato.
"And so, Professor Marchuk, in summary, is it your testimony that the defendant, Devin Becker, is indeed a psychopath?"
Juan Sanchez had rehearsed my direct examination repeatedly. He wanted to ensure that not only the judge, who had heard psychological testimony in many previous cases, could follow me, but also that the seven men and five women in the jury dock, none of whom had ever taken a psych course, couldn't help but see the logic of it all.
Juan had told me to make eye contact with the jurors. Sadly, juror four (the heavyset black woman) and juror nine (the white guy with the comb-over) were both looking down. But I did connect briefly with each of the others, although three averted their gazes as soon as they felt my eyes land on them.
I turned back to him and nodded decisively. "Yes, exactly. There is no question whatsoever."
"Thank you, Professor." Juan looked questioningly at Judge Kawasaki. The best way to use an expert defense witness, he'd told me, was to present direct examination immediately before a recess so the argument would have time to take root before the prosecution attacked it; he'd timed my testimony to finish just before noon. But either Kawasaki was oblivious to the time or he was on to Juan's strategy, since he turned to the D.A. and said the words Juan himself had failed to utter. "Your witness, Miss Dickerson."
Juan shot me a disappointed glance then moved over and sat down next to Devin Becker, who, as always, had a scowl on his thin face.
I shifted nervously in my seat. We'd rehearsed this part, too, trying to predict what questions Belinda Dickerson would fire off in an attempt to discredit my microsaccades technique. But as Moltke the Elder famously said, no battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.
Dickerson was forty-eight, tall, lithe, with a long pale face and short black hair; if the pole holding the Georgia flag at the side of the room ever broke, she could stand in as its replacement. "Mr. Marchuk," she said, in a voice that was stronger than one might have expected from her build, "we heard a great deal about your qualifications when my opponent called you to the stand."
It didn't seem to be a question, so I said nothing. Perhaps she expected me to make some modest noise, and, in a social situation, I might have done just that. But here, in this court, with the hot dry air not to mention an annoying fly buzzing around the light hanging over my head I simply nodded as she went on: "Degrees, postdocs, clinical certifications, academic appointments."
Again, not a question. I had been generally nervous about being cross-examined, but I now relaxed slightly. If she wanted to go over my CV with forensic glee, that was fine by me; I'd embellished nothing.
"But now, sir," Dickerson continued, "I'd like to explore some parts of your background that weren't brought forth by Mr. Sanchez."
I looked at Juan, whose head did an avian snap toward the jury, then ricocheted back to facing me. "Yes?" I said to her.
"Where is your family from?"
"I was born in Calgary, Alberta."
"Yes, yes. But your family, your people: where are they from?"
Like everyone, I've been asked this question before, and I usually made a joke of my reply, the kind only an academic could get away with. "My ancestors," I'd say, "came from Olduvai Gorge." I glanced at the jury box and also at the dour, wrinkled countenance of Judge Kawasaki. There was no point in uttering a joke you knew was going to bomb. "My heritage, you mean? It's Ukrainian."
"So your mother, she was Ukrainian?"
"Yes. Well, Ukrainian-Canadian."
She made a dismissive gesture, as if I were muddying the waters with pointless cavils. "And your maternal grandfather, was he Ukrainian, too?"
"Your grandfather emigrated to Canada at some point?"
"The 1950s. I don't know precisely when."
"But he lived in Ukraine prior to that?"
"Actually, I think the last place he lived in Europe was Poland."
Dickerson took a turn looking at the jury. She raised her eyebrows as if astonished by my answer. "Where in Poland?"
It took me a second to come up with the name and I doubt I did justice to the pronunciation. "Gdenska."
"Which is where?"
I frowned. "As I said, in Poland."
"Yes, yes. But where in Poland? What's it close to?"
"It's north of Warsaw, I think."
"I believe that's correct, yes, but is it close to any ... any site, shall we say ... of historical significance?"
Juan Sanchez rose, jaw jutting even more than usual. "Objection, your honor. This travelogue can be of no relevance to the matter at hand."
"Overruled," said Kawasaki. "But you are trying my patience, Miss Dickerson."
She apparently took that as license to ask a leading question. "Mr. Marchuk, sir, let me put it bluntly: isn't that village of yours, Gdenska, isn't it just ten miles from Sobibor?"
Her consistent refusal to use one of the honorifics I was entitled to was, of course, an attempt to undermine me in front of the jury. "I don't know," I said. "I have no idea."
"Fine, fine. But it's near Sobibor, isn't it? Only a few minutes by car, no?"
"I really don't know."
"Or by train?" She let that sink in for a beat, then: "What did your grandfather do during World War II?"
"I don't know."
I felt my eyebrows going up. "No."
"That surprises me, sir. It surprises me a great deal."
"You actually don't get to ask questions, sir; that's not the way this works. Now, is it really your testimony here, under oath, that you don't know what your mother's father did during World War II?"
"That's right," I said, utterly perplexed. "I don't know."
Dickerson turned to the jury and lifted her hands in an "I gave him a chance" sort of way. She then walked to her desk, and her young female assistant passed her a sheet of paper. "Your honor, I'd like to introduce this notarized scan of an article from the Winnipeg Free Press of March twenty-third, 2001."
Kawasaki gestured for Dickerson to come forward, and she handed him the piece of paper. He gave it a perfunctory glance then passed it to the clerk. "So ordered," he said. "Mark as People's one-four-six."
"Thank you, your honor," she said, retrieving the sheet. "Now, Mr. Marchuk, would you be so kind as to read us the first indicated passage?"
She handed me the page, which had two separate paragraphs highlighted in blue. I couldn't make out what they said without my reading glasses, and so I reached into my suit jacket and saw the guard at the far end of the room move to draw his revolver. I slowly removed my cheaters, perched them on my nose, and began reading aloud: "‘More startling revelations were made this week as papers from the former Soviet Union continued to be made public. The newly disclosed documents have a Canadian connection. Ernst Kulyk ...’" I faltered and my throat went dry as I skimmed ahead.
"Continue, please, sir," said Dickerson.
I swallowed, then: "’Ernst Kulyk, the father of Patricia Marchuk, a prominent Calgary attorney, has been revealed to have been a guard at the Nazi Sobibor death camp, implicated in the deaths of thousands, if not tens of thousands, of Polish Jews.’"
I looked up. The paper fluttered in my hands.
"Thank you, sir. Now, who is Patricia Marchuk?"
"And, just to be clear, she's your biological mother and Ernst Kulyk was her biological father, correct? Neither you nor your mother were adopted?"
"Is your maternal grandfather still alive?"
"No. He died sometime in the 1970s."
"And you were born in 1982, correct? So you never met him, right?"
"And your mother, is she still alive?"
"No. She passed fifteen years ago."
"Were you estranged from her?"
"And yet it's your testimony before this court that you didn't know what her father your grandfather did during World War II?"
My heart was pounding. "I honestly, I had no idea."
"Where did you live in March 2001, when this article was published?"
"In Winnipeg. I was in second-year university then."
"We don't use that term in Canada, but yes."
"And the Winnipeg Free Press, correct me if I'm wrong, is now and was then the largest-circulation daily newspaper in that city, right?"
"I believe so, yes."
"So surely someone must have mentioned this article to you, no?"
"Seriously? Didn't your mother say anything to you about this revelation?"
Acid was splashing at the back of my throat. "Not that I recall."
"Not that you recall," she repeated. "There's a second highlighted passage on that page. Would you read it, please?"
I looked down and did so. "‘Ernst Kulyk was a local, living near Sobibor. Historian Howard Green at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles says Marchuk fits the physical description of Ernst the Enforcer, a guard notorious for his brutality.’"
"And your work, Professor, as we've heard here in this courtroom, is designed to exonerate those accused of heinous crimes, is it not?"
"Not at all. I "
"Please, sir. Surely the defense would not have engaged your services if they hadn't thought your testimony could be used to convince the honest men and women of this jury that some people just happen to be psychopaths, that God made them that way, that they can't help themselves, that they shouldn't be held accountable to the highest standard of the law, isn't that so?"
"Objection!" said Juan. "Argumentative."
"Sustained. Careful, Miss Dickerson."
"Mr. Marchuk, sir, how would you characterize the relationship between your family history and your area of research? Isn't it true that the one inspired the other?"
"I told you I didn't know about my grandfather."
"Come now, sir. I can understand wanting to put your family's shame Canada's shame behind you, but, really, isn't it true that you, in fact, had made up your mind in this case before you ever met Devin Becker? For to find Devin Becker accountable, to insist he answer for his crimes, his perversions, his cruelty, would require you to demand the same of your grandfather. Isn't that so?"
"Even if I'd known about my grandfather," I said, feeling dizzy now, "the cases are vastly different, separated by decades and thousands of miles."
"Trivialities," said Dickerson. "Isn't it true that you've been called ‘an apologist for atrocities’ in print?"
"Never in a peer-reviewed journal."
"True," said Dickerson. "I allude to Canada's National Post. But the fact of the matter remains: is it not true that every aspect of your testimony here today is colored by your desire to see your grandfather as a blameless victim of circumstances?"
"My research is widely cited," I said, feeling as though the wooden floor of the witness dock was splintering beneath me, "and it, in turn, cites such classics as the work of Cleckley and Milgram."
"But, unlike them, you come at this with an agenda, do you not?"
It seemed utterly pointless to protest that Stanley Milgram's family had been Jews slaughtered in the Holocaust his work was all about trying to make sense of the senseless, to fathom the inexplicable, to comprehend how sane, normal people could have done those things to other thinking, feeling beings.
"That would not be my position," I said, trying to keep my voice steady.
"No," responded Belinda Dickerson, looking once more at the men and women in the jury dock, all of whom were sitting up in rapt attention. "I'm sure it wouldn't be."
Judge Kawasaki finally called the recess, and I exited the Atlanta courtroom, my heart pounding again, which, given my history, is a feeling I hated. Juan Sanchez was going to have lunch with Devin Becker, but I doubted they wanted me to join them. I headed out into the afternoon heat, air shimmering above the parking lot's asphalt, used a shaking hand to put my Bluetooth receiver in my ear, and called my sister in Calgary. The phone rang, then a woman said, "Morrell, Thompson, Chandler, and Marchuk."
"Heather Marchuk, please." My sister's marriage had fallen apart long ago way before mine had but she'd always used her maiden name professionally.
"May I ask who's calling?"
"It's her brother Jim."
"Oh, Mr. Marchuk, hi. Are you in town?"
I'm usually pretty good with names, and I suspect if I wasn't so distraught I would have come up with the receptionist's. I could picture her, though blond, petite, round glasses.
"No. Is Heather in?"
"Let me put you through."
I saw a husky man looking at me probably a reporter hoping for a quote. I turned and walked briskly away.
My sister and I talked a couple of times a month the maximum Gustav would allow but it was always in the evenings; she was clearly surprised to be getting a call from me during the workday. "Jim, is everything okay? Where are you?"
I couldn't answer the first question in a reassuring way, so I skipped to the second. "Atlanta."
Heather knew me too well. "Something is wrong. What?"
"Do you know what Grandpa Kulyk did in World War II?"
Silence for a moment. Off in the distance here or there, I wasn't sure which a siren was wailing. "What the hell, Jim."
"Sorry?" A question, not an apology.
"What the hell," she said again.
"Jim, if this is some kind of joke ..."
"I'm not joking."
"You know full well what he did in the war, at that camp."
"Well, I know now," I said. "I found out today. I'm here giving expert testimony in that trial I told you about. The D.A. blindsided me with the news."
"It's not news, for Christ's sake," said Heather. "It came out ages ago."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"Are you nuts? We all knew about it."
My head was swimming. "I don't remember that."
"Jim, look, I've got a client meeting in well, damn, I should be doing it now. I don't know what to say, but get some help, okay?"
I'd have been happy to go home after the morning's evisceration, but when the judge had called the recess, Miss Dickerson indicated she wasn't through with me. After failing to find a vegan entrée in the courthouse cafeteria, I'd settled for a packaged salad and a cup of black coffee.
The fireworks began again as soon as court resumed. "Objection!" said Juan, rising in response to Dickerson asking me once more about my personal history. "This fishing expedition has no bearing on the sentencing of Devin Becker."
Dickerson spread her arms as she turned toward the brooding judge. "Your honor, this is the first time Mr. Marchuk's technique has been introduced in a court of law. With the court's permission, it seems only appropriate to delve into any biases or prejudices even ones that he himself might not be aware of that may have tainted his results."
"Very well; objection overruled but don't wander too far afield."
"Of course not, your honor." She turned back to me. "Mr. Marchuk, sir, what's your stance on capital punishment?" I saw Juan clenching his wide jaw.
"I'm against it."
Dickerson nodded, as if this was only to be expected. "Earlier you told us you were Canadian, and our friends to the north don't have capital punishment. Is your objection simply something that goes with your citizenship, like a fondness for hockey and maple syrup?"
"I object to capital punishment on a philosophical basis."
"Ah, yes. When Mr. Sanchez was introducing you, he made mention of the fact that in addition to your three degrees in psychology you also have a master's degree in philosophy, correct?"
"Well, then, given this sentencing trial is precisely about whether Mr. Becker will receive the death penalty, perhaps you could briefly enlighten us as to your philosophical objections to it?"
I took a deep breath. I'd often debated the issue in classrooms, but the palpable disapproval of the jurors was throwing me off my game; the D.A. hadn't allowed anyone who was morally opposed to capital punishment to be impanelled for this case. "They aren't just my objections," I said. "I'm a utilitarian philosopher. Utilitarians believe the greatest good is maximizing happiness for the greatest number. And one of utilitarianism's founders, Jeremy Bentham, back in 1775, articulated several compelling arguments against the death penalty, arguments that still make sense."
I let my butterflies settle for a moment, then: "First, he said and I agree that it's unprofitable. That is, it costs more to society to execute people than it does to keep them alive. That was true in Bentham's day, and is even more true today: the extended legal proceedings, including this very one that we're all part of right now, plus the inevitable appeals, make it far more expensive to execute a criminal than it is to imprison him or her for life.
"And, just as important, Bentham said and, again, I agree the death penalty is irremissible. That is, there's no way to undo an error. Of course, the unhappiness that results from a wrongful execution is huge for the death-row inmate. More than that, though, if a society executes an innocent man, and that fact is subsequently revealed when, for instance, the real killer is caught, then everyone in that society feels or, at least, should feel great remorse at the horrible thing done in the name of all of us. And then "
"Thank you, sir. We get the idea. Now, then, what about abortion? If your argument is that punishing the innocent with the ultimate sanction is debilitating for society, then I'm sure the men and women seated here, in the wake of our Supreme Court having recently overturned Roe v. Wade, will be gratified to hear that you're pro-life."
"I'm not. I'm pro-choice." I heard a hiss-like intake of breath from one of the jurors, and saw another one, the bearded white man, shake his head slowly back and forth.
Belinda Dickerson returned to her desk, and her assistant took a book out of a briefcase and handed it to her and, like every author, I have the ability to recognize one of my own books at just about any distance, even when it's partially obscured. "Your honor, I'd like to introduce this copy of Utilitarian Ethics of Everyday Life, by our current witness, James K. Marchuk."
Judge Kawasaki nodded. "Mark as People's one-four-seven."
"Thank you, your honor. Just to confirm, sir, you are the author of this book, correct?"
"Yes, that's right."
"As you can see, I've marked two pages with Post-it flags. Would you be so kind as to turn to the first one and read the highlighted passage?"
Post-it flags come in many colors; I use them all the time myself. She'd no doubt deliberately chosen red ones; she wanted the jury to be thinking about blood.
I flipped to the first indicated page, carefully took out my reading glasses, and said: "‘As in all utilitarian thinking, one cannot put one's own desires or happiness ahead of another's simply because they are one's own, but in the case of a genetically defective fetus which, if brought to term, will live an unhappy, pain-filled life, terminating the fetus is clearly the path that will most increase the world's net happiness, for, as we have observed, there are only two ways to add to the world's total joy. The first, obviously, is to make the people who already exist happier. The second is to actually increase the number of people in the world through childbirth, provided they will likely live happy lives.’" Italics, as the saying goes, in the original.
I shifted uncomfortably in my seat then went on. "‘The corollary to this is that the world's total happiness is decreased by either making existing people less happy as raising a disabled child with its attendant emotional and financial costs would doubtless do for the parents or by allowing more people to come into existence who will be unhappy, as a child born to a life of pain and suffering will be. In such a case, therefore, abortion is perhaps morally obligatory.’"
The argument was more complex than that, and I dealt with all the objections one might raise in the subsequent paragraphs, but I stopped when the blue highlighting came to an end, closed the book, and looked up.
You could hear a safety pin drop in that courtroom. The jurors were all staring at me, some with mouths agape, and the color had gone out of Juan's face. Only Devin Becker looked unperturbed.
Dickerson let the silence grow for as long as she felt she could get away with, then: "Thank you. Now, the next passage, please."
I nervously opened the book again and flipped to the second marked page. At the top of it was a double-indented quotation from utilitarianism's other founder, John Stuart Mill; I knew it by heart:
Few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals, for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beast's pleasures; no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool, no instructed person would be an ignoramus, no person of feeling and conscience would be selfish and base, even though they should be persuaded that the fool, the dunce, or the rascal is better satisfied with his lot than they are with theirs.
But Dickerson hadn't highlighted that. Instead, the blue marking began immediately afterward; I swallowed, then started reading aloud:
"‘Mill's key point is that we reasonably and correctly value the lives of a human more greatly than we do that of a chimpanzee, for the chimp, while perhaps enjoying the moment, cannot anticipate future happiness as well as we can and that act of anticipation is in itself a pleasure.’
"‘Likewise, we value a chimp to the extent in many jurisdictions of outlawing their use in laboratory experiments more than we value a mouse, a being of demonstrably lesser intellectual capacity. But to be fair, and to avoid a charge of speciesism, we must apply the same standards to our own kind.’
"‘Yes, an embryo, from the moment of conception, is genetically fully Homo sapiens, but it has no complex cognition, no ability to plan or anticipate, and little if any joy. As it develops, these faculties will accrue gradually but they clearly do not exist in anything approaching their full form until several years after birth. On the bases previously discussed, a utilitarian should support abortion when a prenatal diagnosis has been made that is strongly indicative of an unhappy, painful life; it is on this current basis the lack of a fully developed mind for years to come that a utilitarian can additionally embrace not just abortion but also a merciful release when a severe defect is not apparent until after parturition.‘"
"‘Parturition,’" said Dickerson. "A right fancy word, that." She glanced at the jury. "For those of us more accustomed to plainer speaking, what is ‘parturition’?"
"In other words, Mr. Marchuk, sir, you believe abortion is okay. You believe and I find this almost impossible to say aloud, but it is what the indicated passage said, isn't it? You even believe infanticide can be okay. But you don't believe in capital punishment."
"Well, as Peter Singer would argue ..."
"Please, sir, it's a yes-or-no-question. Are you against capital punishment in all circumstances?"
"Are you in favor of abortion?"
"I'm in favor of increasing utility, in maximizing happiness, so "
"Please, sir, again: yes or no? In the vast majority of circumstances in which a woman might desire an abortion, are you in favor of letting her have it?"
"And are there even times when infanticide, when killing an already-born child, is, in your view, the right thing to do?"
"On the basis that "
"Yes or no?"
"And your goal here is to convince the good men and women of this jury that it would be morally wrong to execute the defendant?"
I spread my arms. "I have no goal other than to explain the screening technique I developed, but "
"No, buts, sir. And no more questions. Your honor, I'm very grateful to be through with this witness."
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