All the flowers are dyin.., p.4
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       All the Flowers Are Dying, p.4

         Part #16 of Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block
 
Page 4

 

  He nods, grooms his mustache with his thumb and forefinger. “I’m a psychologist,” he says.

  “So I understand. Yale doctorate, undergraduate work at UVA. I was at Charlottesville myself, though that would have been before your time. ”

  Humphries is fifty-three, ten years his senior. He knows the man’s age, just as he knew he’d graduated from the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. The Internet’s wonderful, it can tell you almost anything you need to know, and this particular bit of knowledge is responsible for his having included UVA on his own résumé.

  “Yale tends to impress people,” he says, “but if I ever amount to anything in this world, the credit should go to the education I got here in Virginia. ”

  “Is that a fact?” Humphries looks at him, and it seems to him that his gaze is less guarded, more respectful. “And are you a Virginian yourself?”

  He shakes his head. “Army brat. I grew up all over the place, and mostly overseas. My four years in Charlottesville was the longest I ever stayed in one spot in my whole life. ”

  They reminisce briefly about the old school, and it turns out that their respective fraternities were friendly rivals. He’d considered making himself a fellow member of Sigma Chi, but decided that would be pushing it. He’d picked another house, just two doors away on Fraternity Row.

  They finish with their old school ties, and he explains his interest in Preston Applewhite. This interview, he tells Humphries, will be one part of an extensive study of criminals who steadfastly maintain their innocence in the face of overwhelming evidence of their guilt. He is particularly interested, he says, in murderers facing the death penalty, insisting on their lack of culpability right up to the very moment of execution.

  Humphries takes this in, frowns in thought. “In your letter to Applewhite,” he says, “you indicate that you believe him. ”

  “I was attempting to give that impression. ”

  “What’s that mean, Doctor? You think he’s innocent?”

  “Certainly not. ”

  “Because the evidence offered at his trial—”

  “Was overwhelming and conclusive. It convinced the jury, and well it might have. ”

  “I have to say I’m relieved to hear you say that. But I don’t know that I understand your motive in suggesting otherwise to Applewhite. ”

  “I suppose one could argue the ethics of it,” he says, and smoothes his mustache. “I’ve found that, in order to win the confidence and cooperation of the men I need to interview, I have to give them something. I’m not prepared to offer them hope, or anything tangible. But it seems to me permissible to let them think that I believe in the veracity of their protestations of innocence. It’s easier for them to pour their revelations into a sympathetic ear, and it may even do them some good. ”

  “How do you figure that?”

  “If I believe a man’s story, it’s that much easier for him to believe it himself. ”

  “But you don’t. Believe their stories, that is. ”

  He shakes his head. “If I had the slightest doubt of a man’s guilt,” he says, “I wouldn’t include him in my study. I’m not investigating the unjustly accused. The men I’m looking at have been justly accused and justly convicted and, I must say, justly condemned to death. ”

  “You’re not opposed to capital punishment. ”

  “Not at all. I think the social order requires it. ”

  “Now there,” Humphries says, “I wish I had your certainty. I don’t disagree with you, but I’m in the unfortunate position of being able to see both sides of the issue. ”

  “That can’t make your job easier. ”

  “It can’t and it doesn’t. But it’s part of my job, and only a small part, although it takes up a disproportionate amount of my time and thought. And I like my job, and like to think I’m good at it. ”

  He lets Humphries talk about the job, its trials and its satisfactions, providing the nods and responses and sympathetic facial expressions that would encourage the flow of words, There’s no hurry. Preston Applewhite isn’t going anywhere, not until Friday, when it’s time for them to put the needle in his arm and send him off to wherever people go.

  “Well, I didn’t mean to go into all that,” Humphries says at length. “I was wondering how you’d get Applewhite to talk to you, but I don’t guess you’ll have much trouble drawing him out. Look how you drew me out, and you weren’t even trying. ”

  “I was interested in what you were saying. ”

  Humphries leans forward, puts his hands together on his desk blotter. “When you talk to him,” he says, “you’re not going to offer him any false hope, are you?”

  False hope? What other kind is there?

  But what he says is, “My abiding interest is in what he has to say. For my part, I’ll do what I can to help him reconcile the impossible contradiction of his situation. ”

  “That being?”

  “That he’s going to be put to death in a matter of days, and that he’s innocent. ”

  “But you don’t believe he’s innocent. Oh, I see. His innocence is something in which you’re both pretending to believe. ”

  “It’s pretense on my part. He may very well believe it. ”

  “Oh?”

  He leans forward, folds his own hands, purposely mirroring the warden’s own body language. “Some of the men I’ve interviewed,” he confides, “will actually admit, with a wink or a nod or in so many words, that they’ve done the deeds for which they’re condemned to death. But there have only been a few of those. Others, probably the greater portion, know they’re guilty. I can see it in their eyes, I can hear it in their voices and read it in their faces, but they won’t admit it to me or to anyone else. They’re holding out deliberately, waiting for a stay from the Supreme Court, an eleventh-hour phone call from the governor. ”

  “This one’s up for reelection next fall, and Applewhite’s the most hated man in the state of Virginia. If there’s a phone call, it’ll be for the doctor, wishing him luck in finding a good vein. ”

  That thought seems to call for the rueful half-smile, and he supplies it. “But what I’ve come to realize,” he says, “is that a substantial minority of condemned men honestly believe they’re innocent. Not that they had just cause, not that it was the victim’s own fault, not that the Devil made them do it. But that they didn’t do it at all. The cops must have framed them, the evidence must have been planted, and if only the real killer can turn up then the world will recognize their own abiding innocence. ”

  “This facility houses three thousand inmates,” Humphries says, “and I don’t know how many committed crimes they can’t consciously recall. They were in a blackout, drug-or alcohol-induced. They don’t necessarily deny their actions, but they don’t remember them. But that’s not what you mean. ”

  “No. There are some instances, especially in sex crimes of the sort Applewhite committed, where the perpetrator’s in an altered state during the performance of the act. But that’s rarely enough to keep him from being aware of what he did. No, the phenomenon I’m talking about happens after the fact, and it’s a case of the wish being father to the thought. ”

  “Oh?”

  “Let me put myself in Applewhite’s place for a moment. Suppose I killed three boys over a period of—what was it, two months?”

  “I believe so. ”

  “Abducted them one by one, committed forcible sodomy, tortured them, killed them, concealed the bodies, and covered up evidence of the murders. Either I found a way to make this acceptable to my conscience or I was sufficiently sociopathic as not to be burdened with a conscience in the first place. ”

  “I grew up certain that everyone had a conscience,” Humphries reflects. “That’s an illusion you lose in a hurry in this line of work. ”

  “These people are sane. They just lack a piece of standard human equipment. They know right from wrong, but they don’t feel the distinction applies
to them. It strikes them as somehow beside the point. ”

  “And they can be quite charming. ”

  He nods. “And can act convincingly normal. They know what a conscience is, they understand the concept, so they can behave as though they have one. ” The rueful smile. “Well. I’ve killed these boys, and it doesn’t bother me in the least, but then I’m caught, and placed under arrest, and it turns out there’s an abundance of evidence of my culpability. I’m in a jail cell, with the media damning me as the blackest villain of the century, and all I can do is protest my innocence.

  “And I do so, with increasing conviction. I have to do more than insist I’m innocent, I have to do so with utter certainty, for how am I to convince anyone if I am not myself convincing? And how better to be convincing than to believe myself in the truth of my arguments?”

  “Other words, you wind up believing your own lies. ”

  “That’s what appears to happen. I’m not entirely certain of the mechanics of the process, but that’s how it manifests itself. ”

  “It sounds almost like self-hypnosis. ”

  “Except that self-hypnosis is generally a conscious process, while what I’ve described is largely unconscious. But there are elements of self- hypnosis, certainly, and elements of denial as well. ‘I could not have done this, ergo I did not do it. ’ The mind’s reality trumps the reality of the physical world. ”

  “Fascinating. You make me wish I’d taken more psych courses. ”

  “I’d say you’re getting a crash course on the job. ”

  “I’m an administrator, Dr. Bodinson, and—”

  “Arne. ”

  “Arne. I’m an administrator, the plant manager at a factory. My job is to keep the line running and handle problems as they arise. But you’re right, it’s a crash course in the intricacies of the human psyche. You know, if Applewhite believes he didn’t do it—”

  “Which I haven’t yet established, but which strikes me as likely. ”

  “Well, that means there won’t be any last-minute confession. ”

  “How could there be, if in his mind he has nothing to admit to?”

  “It ordinarily wouldn’t matter,” Humphries says, “because either way he gets the needle, but I was thinking of the parents of the one boy, the first victim. I don’t recall his name, and I should. I’ve heard it often enough. ”

  “Jeffrey Willis, wasn’t it? The one whose body was never found. ”

  “Yes, of course. Jeffrey Willis, and his parents are Peg and Baldwin Willis, and they’re having a terrible time of it. They can’t get closure. That’s one good thing about capital punishment, it provides closure for the victim’s family in the way a life sentence never does, but for the Willises it’ll be only partial closure, because they’re deprived of the opportunity to bury their son. ”

 
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