Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Across the table from a serial killer

By Jenny Hilborne
Author of mysteries and psychological thrillers

Authors are some of the most fascinating people. Almost every time I meet one, I come away with an intriguing new story. Often, it has to something to do with research they've conducted for a novel, as was the case last Saturday with one of thirteen authors who attended a public library book signing event in San Diego.

In researching one of my books, I spent hours inside a police station, experienced the arrest procedure, and found myself locked inside a cell. I wasn't expecting the lock up. The police sergeant treated me to that to give me a true flavor of what a prisoner goes through. The heavy slam of the thick metal prison door and the isolation in a cold concrete cell is something I'll always remember.

One thing I haven't done as part of my research is actually talk to an inmate. I'd love to do it and hear the words of those doing it the hard way. Apparently, it's not that easy to arrange.

One of the mystery authors at the Paradise Hills Library event told me about his interview at San Quentin State Prison with a serial killer. While the shivers ran up my back at the idea of sitting a few feet away from a shackled serial killer, I was engrossed...and a little envious.

Once the prisoner agreed to the interview, arranging it took months. Preparations included a full background check on the author, who told me he got the opportunity via personal connections. Without those connections, he may never have had the chance.

When the day arrived, the author was allowed to take a notepad and pen in with him. He was granted one hour to conduct his interview with the serial killer. An hour with a violent offender seemed like a long time to me. As described by the author, the prisoner was sufficiently shackled with his movements severely restricted. The inmate could bend his head forward to take a sip of his drink, and not much else.

After the interview, the author said he had to hand in his notes for inspection...or scrutinization before he could leave. Every page was carefully examined by the prison guards.

I asked the author his feelings...was he afraid, nervous? Was it difficult to think of questions to ask? What was it like to talk to a man convicted of serial murders? I imagined I'd have butterflies at the very least. (That's a polite way of saying I think I'd be crapping my pants). The author said he felt no fear. In fact, he felt perfectly safe. He said the prisoner was "reformed" and it didn't feel like he was talking to a serial killer at all.

I used the quotation marks around "reformed" as I had to take a step back at this point in our conversation and ask the author, "Can it be so? Do you truly believe anyone convicted of such atrocious crimes could ever be considered reformed?"

The answer surprised me.  

The author explained how the inmate killed during a "blackout."

"What does that mean?" I asked, my first thought being of electrical failure.

In this case, blackout meant under the influence of drugs and alcohol. The author said the prisoner battled with severe addictions and told that him he would "wake up" and find himself covered in blood, with no knowledge of what had happened. He knew he'd killed someone in a violent rage, but was not conscious of doing so at the time. Now that the inmate is no longer controlled by those substances, he no longer suffers from those faults. He is reformed.

Fascinating. Even if I wasn't sure I was convinced, it sounded plausible. The more I listened, the more willing I was to consider it possible. I love psychology. It makes the lines between good and evil that much more complex.

For the rest of the signing event, the question rumbled around inside my head: Can a violent offender, such as a serial killer, ever truly be considered reformed?

What are your thoughts?

Authors: have you had the opportunity to interview an inmate? What was your experience?


  1. I'm fascinated with this stuff. I haven't interviewed a violent criminal, but I have watched a video of an interrogation in which a murderer finally confessed. It was amazing to watch the detectives empathize with him, then break him down.

    1. Me, too, L.J. Psychology is so interesting.

  2. I've never interviewed an inmate, but I did listen to a man who had done time and was now reformed and going around telling about his life and experiences. Basically, he was a grifter - had stolen and cheated and gotten everything the illegal way. What struck me about him was what he told the crowd about his Us-Versus-Them mentality. "As thieves, we do not believe we are the same as you. You are marks to us. We are the only people in the room." He admitted that it was something he still struggled with - empathy.

    1. Wow, Gayle. That's interesting to hear how they think of everyone else.

  3. Fascinating! You've made me wonder if maybe I could gain access either through the Citizens Police Academy or through a cousin who is a prison administrator.

    What sort of questions did he ask? I mean, I'd sure hate to set him off, reformed or not. ;-)

  4. Those connections might work, Peg. Best of luck. The author told me he discussed the addictions and the crimes themselves. Blood curdling stuff.

  5. I just got back from 12 days away so trying to catch up with blog posts, etc. My first reaction to this post was worry that we're treating murderers like stars that should be interviewed! Maybe they will feel that it's some kind of tacit approval or even envy? That's scary to me...

    1. I agree, Jodie. I thought the same thing when the author told difficult it was to get the interview. I guess prison protocol demands it, but I know what you mean.

  6. I've interviewed many of them. I was in a house alone with a murderer before he was convicted (and before anyone knew he had committed a murder.) Sat at the counsel table with several others. I've been sent love letters and "come to Jesus" letters from prisoners. I've been cussed out and threatened by them. Sometimes when you sit down and talk to these killers you come to realize they really are human.

    I'd say if you get the chance to interview one, go for it. It certainly can make your writing more realistic.

  7. Definitely, T. I imagine those were some interesting experiences.


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