Evil is live backwards

By skepticlawyer

From time to time, people suggest to me that, in my line of work, I must see a fair few evil people. Not common or garden variety nasty, or plain crooked, but actively evil. The human equivalent of Old Nick, the sort who – if they went up in smoke – would leave a whiff of brimstone behind.

As a general rule, they’re surprised when I say, no, not many. The people who grace the nation’s docks are seldom evil in the absolute sense. Of course, I get the benefit of hearing counsels’ submissions on sentence. This takes place after conviction, whether by jury or by way of a plea. That’s when you hear the line beloved of courtroom dramas and John Mortimer novels: do you have anything to say as to why sentence should not be passed upon you according to law? The technical term for this is the allocutus, and any judge who – through inadvertence or otherwise – fails to administer it will find his decision heading for appeal.

Sentencing submissions are always structured in such a way as to give a rounded portrait of the offender, to allow him to both speak and be spoken for. If the offence is out of character – when there is no criminal record, a steady job, a stable home-life – defence counsel has a much easier time of it. A barrister can hand up glowing job references, evidence of community involvement, trade certifications and so on. When, however, the Crown hands up several A4 sheets of (recent) criminal history, and the offender is jobless and itinerant; then he’s in trouble, and his barrister has a much harder road to hoe. Even in the very worst cases, however, a good barrister will find something in the prisoner’s background on which to base his submissions.

Funnily enough, murderers seldom have such a string of prior convictions, unless the killing came about as part of a more general involvement in organised crime. Typically, they’re clean-skins, or have a few unpaid fines or a Magistrates’ Court record for what is still quaintly called a ‘utensil’. They, too, are seldom evil. Often the trial turns on evidence of provocation, self-defence or intoxication (note that intoxication is not a defence in Australia; it merely vitiates intent), and the line can be a difficult one to draw. Jurors will swing one way or another, and – so long as they’ve not been contaminated by the media, as happened in the Chamberlain case – the system works well.

taylor.gifSometimes, though, the careful lawyer in me detects the whiff of brimstone. It’s rare – far rarer than you’d believe – but I don’t doubt that there are people out there who are simply evil. Bad eggs. Hairbags. Rotten apples. One was a 16 year old boy who pleaded guilty to murder, (thankfully) sparing us a trial. He’d walked into his sleeping father’s bedroom, loaded a .22 and – forensic evidence revealed – shot his father in the forehead at a range of roughly three centimetres. There was no motive, no reason, no evidence of mental illness or deracinated background. It was like the famous Richard Pryor question of a killer on death row. Q: why did you kill the whole family? A: They was home. Unfortunately, he had to give evidence in another matter, one which covered many of the events surrounding the killing. A prenaturally calm and reasoned young man, both clever and articulate, he was without remorse or pity. Psychiatrists often use the phrase ‘flat affect‘ to describe this lack of feeling. This is what it means, I thought.

Evil is a convenient label, invested with religious symbology and almost mythic power. It is a word to be used with great care. Lawyering has sharpened my sense of what it is not, and made me alert to those who bandy it about too readily. It’s also made me aware that some evil never finishes up in a courtroom, not because perpetrators of evil deeds go unpunished, but because evil can be far more subtle and pervasive. This insight comes via American psychiatrist M Scott Peck, one of three investigators appointed by the US Surgeon-General to investigate the My Lai massacre. I find Peck’s writing frustrating but also rewarding, in that he is trying to scrabble his way towards an understanding of human beings that does not amount to reductionist psychobabble: society did it, arrest society!

I first encountered Peck when I was living in the UK, teaching in a school in London’s poorest and most multicultural borough, Brent. One of the students I taught was murdered a couple of streets away, and I remember walking up from Willesden Junction and seeing the place in the street where he’d lain. There was blood there, and as the days passed, bunches of flowers. Relatives – everyone in the area knew him – would stand lyming on street corners and putting up posters recalling his death (and life). They’d point out that he died as a result of gang violence. It is fair to say that he was not a nice boy, in and out of various pupil referral units (a place for the expelled – the Brits call it ‘exclusion’) in between returning to a normal high school (he always seemed to wind up in my PE class) until tossed out yet again. His death was one of many gang-related murders that year, a phenomenon that attracted little attention until the case of Damilola Taylor later in the same year. Damilola – the little boy in the graphic – was only ten, the son of a family of aspirational Nigerian immigrants with dreams of becoming a doctor. The building behind him is typical of council estates in London – one of the reasons why I chose it. It may even be the estate where he lived.

Most of the gang deaths were among poor ‘Afro-Caribbean’ kids, or asylum seekers plonked into council housing with no thought as to background or ethnicity. One tower estate near me was stuffed with Serb and Kosovar asylum seekers. Every week someone would be knifed or pushed out of an upper-story window. The place was almost unimaginably squalid. I often went there with a social worker in an attempt to extract pupils where parents had failed to send them to school. Each visit, the lift would have a fresh turd in the back, and there were always old black men with rheumy eyes peeing in the stairwells. Once, one fellow tried to scurry away as we approached, sending himself down several flights of stairs. I went to help him, and was told by my hard-nosed colleague not to bother.

That incident came back to haunt me as more details about the Taylor killing emerged over time. The whole investigation was botched almost beyond recognition, with two of the killers only being gaoled last year – for a crime that took place in 2000. However, one crucial fact remained constant throughout the case. Damilola had crawled a hundred yards – with a severed femoral artery – from where he was attacked. He left a trail of blood. It took him about thirty minutes to die. Passers-by saw him. No-one rendered aid.

I scooped a copy of Peck’s People of the Lie off my housemate’s bookshelf and read it shortly afterwards, I’m not sure why. Peck is religious – and I’m not – but he wears his religion lightly. I became convinced as I read it that I should try to find out what happened to the man who fell down the stairs, that – albeit belatedly – I should render aid. Peck writes of evil in religous terms, but even I could see that the best opportunity nasties of all kinds have to flourish is when people look the other way.

The answer came readily enough, when once again I was paired with the same social worker for a visit to the same tower block. Once again the lifts had broken down, and once again we started the long slow climb up multiple flights of stairs. We met him about six flights up. He was outside his apartment, chewing and spitting and red-eyed. The local authority must have seen fit to replace the busted flourescent lights along the corridor, and we could see his face very clearly.

He was in a wheelchair. A new, shiny wheelchair.

The Damilola Taylor trust is here. Among other things, it raises money to send bright but disadvantaged young people to medical school.


  1. Deus Ex Macintosh
    Posted March 1, 2007 at 5:21 am | Permalink

    I wouldn’t object to carrying a taser if I was allowed to but like pepper spray, it’s illegal for civilians over here.

  2. Posted March 1, 2007 at 7:26 am | Permalink

    Fantastic post, skepticlawyer. These are questions I have struggled with myself. A criminal judge once told me that there were three types of criminals: the mad, the bad and the sad (see this post for further details).

    Re the recent thread above: I don’t think allowing people to carry guns or knives is the answer to preventing crime…

    In terms of why people do not get involved, sometimes people are uncertain, not uncaring. I did a post about the abduction of Juan Zhang, where bystanders heard her screams but did not investigate.

    I do know that if I saw a young boy lying on the pavement bleeding there would be no way I could just walk on by. I would have wanted to help the guy who fell down the stairs too.

    But it’s amazing what people will ignore. My sister fainted in a city street (low blood sugar), and people walked over her (perhaps presuming she was a druggie or something). Fortunately, a friend happened to be walking past.

    I guess people think that it’s not their business, and are uncertain about what to do. They might also be busy (have a meeting to get to) and worried that they will get dragged into something involving the police?

  3. Rococo Liberal
    Posted March 1, 2007 at 8:51 am | Permalink


    Augustine of Hippo also said: “Lord make me virtuous but not yet.”

    Surely an evil person is merely one who lacks a moral compass, or a conscience. He or she is either a complete solipsistic egoist. Ironically, such people often find themselves at home in collectivist ideologies.

  4. davidleyonhjelm
    Posted March 1, 2007 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    David L
    Perhaps you can help me with this. I once read about a county in the USA where everyone was required to have weapons and were permitted to carry concealables in daily business. Very low crime rates there because the balance of power is restored, the crim knows if he pulls a gun he’ll have a shitstorm of bullets coming his way. I can’t remember the name of the county and perhaps my memory is faulty. Can you help me here?

    I know the county but can’t recall it’s name either. The law is that you must have a firearm in the house for protection. Those opposed to it need an exemption permit. The crime rate is extremely low, although I understand the county is semi-rural and that is also a factor.

    Concealed carry is subject to state law (ie not county) and permitted in 41 states. Several have not required a permit, although they are introducing them to facilitate interstate carrying.

    The unspoken but open secret about the US and gun violence is black and Hispanic violence with guns.

    I understand that when this is excluded from the statistics, the murder rate is similar to Australia’s. In Switzerland, which also has extremely high gun ownership, the murder rate is actually lower than Australia’s. (Murder with guns may be higher, but it’s just method substitution.)

    Plus dudes like you and me could get some real quality gear straight away.

    GMB, I agree the idea of phasing in concealed carry according to age has merit if it makes people comfortable with the idea.
    But if you want some quality gear, join a pistol club. I have some great gear, but other than when I am shooting holes in pieces of paper it must be locked in my safe. Unless an attacker comes to my house and gives me 15 minutes notice of his intentions, my gear is no use for self defence.

  5. Posted March 1, 2007 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    Some great contributions while I’ve been away. I’m working from home today, designing a flyer for an exhibition on women in the law in Qld. Unfortunately the pictures I’m supposed to use haven’t come down the pipe as yet, so not much I can do apart from generate a template and put in the text.

    A katana is one of those extra-sharp, extra funky Japanese swords. Popular in Kill Bill.

  6. pingu
    Posted March 1, 2007 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    GMB: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katana

    I don’t think you could configure one to only be used by one person. Although using it correctly is another matter.

  7. pingu
    Posted March 1, 2007 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    oops…SL you beat me to it.

    In any case, the Japanese are very picky about not letting their fine swords get exported to gaijin like me. So instead I indulge in the fine work of japanese swordsmiths by pairing it with my other passion, cooking. Specifically japanese knives (which can be exported). Like this one:


  8. Jason Soon
    Posted March 1, 2007 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    I want one of these


  9. derrida derider
    Posted March 1, 2007 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    dead soul and pingu –

    You clearly haven’t understood Dawkins if you say “it is at present impossible to tell how much of this genetic variation is responsible”. He makes the point that it will never be possible because the plasticity of the brain means that there is an extremely complex interaction between genes and expressed behaviour. The idea that we can allot x percent to genes and 100-x percent to environment for any manifestation of behaviour is conceptually incoherent – in his words such statements are so meaningless as to be “not even wrong”.

    As for Murray I have a very low opinon of his intellectual honesty, based on his writing on stuff I have a professional interest in – poverty measurement and analysis. For a damning critique of the technical work in the Bell Curve by a Nobel-prize winning but very right-wing econometrician, read this.

  10. fatfingers
    Posted March 1, 2007 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    Nice site, pingu. Knives are nice. I’m a bit freaked out by the price of this one:

    And what’s with the left-handed jive? The handles look symmetrical.

  11. derrida derider
    Posted March 1, 2007 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    Returning to issues of crime and punishment (now there’s a title for a book!):

    My point is that justice and revenge are not synonymous – and I’ve no time for revenge.

    This does not mean we mightn’t punish people on utilitarian grounds. Mind you, before we do we should take a good look at the empiric evidence on deterrence, disablement (ie while people are in jail they’re off the streets), rehabilitation, etc.

    Fortunately there is a lot of criminological research on this, which broadly goes:

    -victims rarely gain much pleasure from harsher penalties.

    – harsh sentences don’t do much to deter.

    – having plenty of cops to catch criminals and a court system which reliably convicts the guilty and acquits the innocent does deter (IOW it’s the probability, not the severity, of punishment that does most to deter).

    – a small minority of the population commits the great bulk of crimes. You can reduce crime by locking habitual criminals up for long periods to get them off the streets (not, though, that there’s no added value in making prison any more unpleasant than it needs to be for them)

    – short prison sentences are worse than useless, because they teach people to be crims without either deterring them or getting them off the streets for long.

  12. derrida derider
    Posted March 1, 2007 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    Whoops, a typo reversed the meaning of a sentence above. I meant to say:

    note, though, that there’s no added value in making prison any more unpleasant than it needs to be for them”

  13. davidleyonhjelm
    Posted March 1, 2007 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    Dd, your points are spot on. The laura norder auction is such a farce.

    And I hate to be a killjoy but tucking a katana or even a batarang in your back pocket will get you a rest break in her majesty’s penal institutions, unless you can show they are for the preparation of food (as in spreading vegemite on your biscuits, not killing the meat to eat.)

  14. Posted March 1, 2007 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    Pics are now down the pipe but I don’t have dates. Oh well, everything is done until I do and I can blog for a bit (although I note that one of my graphics is wonky).

    Unpleasant prisons (or should I say squalid) are very much a function of the laura norder fetish that gets around. It’s as though – deep down inside us – there’s a desire to go back to the stocks and public executions. It even comes up in police dramas – the constant threat of gaol rape, for example.

  15. Dead Soul
    Posted March 1, 2007 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    Next person who suggests to me that Dawkins is the source of genetic wisdom gets their head chopped off. His description of genetics is simplistic. It has to be, he is addressing the general public. He does an excellent job in that regard. As I have stated to people: popular science books can introduce you to a subject, textbooks are better but overlook the problems too often, technical reviews get into the nitty gritty. And guess what, all three modes will leave you with different perspectives. If your understanding of genetics derives just from reading Dawkins I’m not interested and I suspect Dawkins himself would suggest that further reading is required. The same goes for single reviews on such complex issues as addressed in The Bell Curve. That is why I suggested a number of authors!

    Readers of Dawkins might do well to catch up with the data, since The Selfish Gene genetics has changed so much. His emphasis is on competitiveness between genes, he ignores epigenetics, “piggybacking”, genetic drift, and the simple fact is evolution has as much, if not more, to do about co-operation between organisms.

    Never be possible? Yeah, and we will never be able to fly, we will never be able to … . His epistemological fatalism is not shared by the vast majority of scientists. In my view his attitude is a cop out, it saves him from having to address some very unpleasant questions.

    Pingu, no contradiction, the data points to differences but as yet we cannot quantify the same. This is where Dawkins comes a cropper, there are mountains of studies documenting how changing even just one gene can impact on behavior.

  16. Posted March 1, 2007 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    Never be possible? Yeah, and we will never be able to fly, we will never be able to … . His epistemological fatalism is not shared by the vast majority of scientists. In my view his attitude is a cop out, it saves him from having to address some very unpleasant questions.

    Thank you for saving me making a lengthy ‘difficult, but never impossible’ type comment. I may not always line up with Jason’s transhumanism, but finding out what makes us tick is something is very good at, and it will only get better over time. If we are not overcome by fear of its findings.

  17. GMB
    Posted March 1, 2007 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    “GMB, I agree the idea of phasing in concealed carry according to age has merit if it makes people comfortable with the idea.

    But if you want some quality gear, join a pistol club. ”

    Well thats fantastic.

    Because I think it means we can pin our ears back on it if there are no insurmountable legal obstacles to overcome.

    And if you are right… And if it doesn’t lead to any societal instability we could quickly bring the age limit down.

    And I stress that this is not meant by me to be any restriction to what gun rights that the younger blokes already have.

    And I was thinking of more then just concealed carry. I was thinking that some of the older gentelman in a time of international bullying might have the ability and the inclination to really put a full combat arsenal together.

    And I’d want to see anyone of any age be able to get hold of mace and tasers and anything of a non-lethal nature.

    We’ve got to get this sorted. You see (if I may be so bold as to put words in your mouth) major benefits in personal freedom and perhaps even benefits in crime prevention and in the prevention of tyrrany during times of great stress from loosening up the access to weaponry.

    I see some of that but my focus is on preventing superior powers from trying anything on if the Americans pull back from the world, or are otherwise engaged.

    We only have enough people in the armed forces to fill the Melbourne Cricket Grounds.

    We don’t have Stealth fighters, or nukes on our submarines.

    We don’t have bunker buster nukes, much in the way of missile defense, much even in the way of anti-aircraft defenses at all I would have thought.

    Our size and isolation made us pretty all right decades ago. It was hard to touch us. But now we are just sitting ducks without the Americans.

    And I’m getting to think that American blood-sucker-central can no longer be relied on anyway. The elected people and their reps I still see as OK if they are not leftist Democrats. But just the whole big Washington bureaucracy.

    This is not a system that we can rightly put our security in the hands of.

    When we get nasty bullying from our Northern neighbours I don’t want to see Gareth Evans endlessly apologizing.

    I don’t want to see 25 billion dollar gas deals done at bargain basement prices….. done with the crowd who are bullying us.

    Rather I would have it that the money from the raised income threshold would magically lead to all these containers coming off the docks, chock-fill with military-grade weaponry of the type that can be customised so that only the owner can use it………….

    …….. And no matter how much this was played down. And no matter how our politicians denied this was happening. Our potential adversaries would pick this up. The would not be fooled. They would see this and they would say….

    …”Nope…. too risky… Maybe we better just try and get along with these Australians”

    This is my main focus.

  18. pingu
    Posted March 1, 2007 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

    The handles may look symetrical in the photo, but it is the cross-section that matters…it isn’t spherical and in fact has a slightly raised bit which makes it easier to hold.

    Plus. Many japanese knives are flat on one side and only sharpened on the other, which means that it is possible to have a left-handed and a right-handed sharpening. This is important if you are going to slice your sushi without turning it into pulp.

  19. pingu
    Posted March 1, 2007 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

    …sorry, spherical, what was I thinking, I meant circular. You can’t have a spherical cross-section.

  20. pingu
    Posted March 1, 2007 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

    You can see the handle more clearly here…

  21. Posted March 1, 2007 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

    And I meant to say ‘science is very good at’ in my comment aways up the thread. Too many vodkas.

  22. Brendan Halfweeg
    Posted March 1, 2007 at 8:38 pm | Permalink

    Britain is an unarmed society

    THAT had me laughing. The issue of the week seems to be the number of schoolkids carrying knives. The motivation is always self defence, but consequences of using them are entirely random without an advanced understanding of human anatomy.

    Nice misinterpretation of my statement. It is illegal to carry weapons in Britain, see my references to confiscating pocket knives and multitools. Most British are law abiding, and so obey and so the vast majority of Britons are unarmed. Hence my observation that Britain is an unarmed society.

  23. davidleyonhjelm
    Posted March 1, 2007 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

    ”Nope…. too risky… Maybe we better just try and get along with these Australians”

    Switzerland is pretty close to what you are proposing.

    It is the “well-armed militia” concept in the US Second Amendment. For libertarians, it is probably the only way a country could abolish (entirely or mostly) its standing military without disarming.

    Perhaps equally importantly, it is also a safeguard against oppressive government. Gun controls were first introduced in the US to prevent blacks from having access to guns and in the UK to prevent Bolshevik supporters from being armed. The Nazis introduced gun control to prevent Jews, Gypsies and others from arming as well.

    Some argue that one of the reasons Japan did not invade Australia during WW2 is the known presence of large numbers of competent rifle shooters. I haven’t seen any authoritative evidence for that though.

  24. GMB
    Posted March 1, 2007 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

    Well its an important topic.

    But we still have to be able to keep all these people right away from the island.

    And also we have to have that horses head in the bed power that only stealth fighters could give us. We’ve got to convey both that there is no invading Australia and should you actually succeed in invading that would be far worse than failing.

    So this goes somewhat beyond concealed carry.

    I do agree on that idea of deterring tyranny. But I think it’s a little different then most people imagine.

    It’s not that Hawke or Howard would ever have gone in for setting up a tyranny. It’s more that if we are unarmed then the leftists and millennarians will start day-dreaming about this years in advance and in an emergency they’ll all work together in their exquisite group-think to screw us.

    That’s how I think about it anyhow.

    But if it’s your patriarchs… or at least your people over 35 that have all this firepower…

    ..That sort of daydreaming and schemeing won’t get off the ground in the first place.

    You saw here tonight Munn and others expressing a sort of sympathetic wish to get hold of everybody else’s kiddies for some overarching lefty purpose. When they see their opportunity they would all spring into action. But I think psycologically they won’t harbour these daydreams if the right people are pieced-up.

    And if they did there would be people all over the nation busily cleaning and inspecting their firearms.

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