The Psychology of Criminal Behavior and the January 6th Trial

Charles, the director of the jail where I worked as a counselor in the 1970s, once said, “There has been a giant cosmic error; I was meant to be born rich.” We laughed at his joke…which he told many times with colorful variations.


Within the joke, though, was a truth we both intuitively understood that criminals don’t: No one is entitled to be born rich or to become rich.


Years later, I met the renowned criminal psychologist Stanton Samenow, author of the three-volume series “The Criminal Personality.” These books describe the thinking errors of criminals, one of which he explained as a belief in ownership or entitlement. Samenow said, “The criminal walks by a bank and says to himself, “Nice that they’re keeping my money safe inside there for me.”


Samenow’s insights about criminal thinking can help untangle confusing opinions offered by popular columnists about the indictment of Donald Trump regarding events that occurred on January sixth.


Now, Donald Trump and 18 co-defendants are indicted on 41 counts in Georgia’s 2020 election subversion case, with Trump facing 91 charges across four separate indictments while running for the 2024 presidency.


In an opinion column for the Washington Post columnist Hugh Hewitt wrote why he thinks the January 6th indictment will fail:


“The simple but crucial question regarding special counsel Jack Smith’s Aug.1 indictment of Donald Trump in Washington on charges of conspiracy and obstruction of an official proceeding is this: What did the former president believe and when did he believe it?… Or, as Post reporters Devlin Barrett and Josh Dawsey framed it last week: “Donald Trump’s trial for allegedly conspiring to overturn the results of the 2020 election may hinge on a long-debated aspect of the former president’s mind-set: How much, or if, he believes his own false claims.”


The argument is that conviction depends on whether the prosecution can show Mr. Trump’s criminal intent.


But Hewitt conflates two possible beliefs. The first is, did Mr. Trump believe the election was stolen? And second, did he believe his efforts to overturn the election were legal because he relied on the advice of his attorneys?


Whether Mr. Trump believed the election was stolen is probably legally irrelevant. (Disclaimer: I’m a psychologist, not a lawyer.) Sixty court cases decided the election was legitimate. Mr. Trump may have believed the election SHOULD have been in his favor, just as the criminal walks by the bank and thinks the money inside is his.


But nobody would ever be convicted of theft if claiming entitlement to the goods was an accepted legal defense. Mr. Trump recently has begun saying “in my opinion” as though his opinion somehow justifies attempting to take something that was not his, but I doubt this is a legal defense.


The second belief is more of a problem. Did Mr. Trump believe efforts to delay the certification of the electoral count were legitimate because he relied on legal advice?


The plan appears to have been created by some of his advisors but was dismissed as illegal by many others, including his attorney general. Mr. Trump’s defense team may claim that he believed the plan was legal and that he relied on the opinions of lawyers.


But the former president likely would have to testify to make that claim credible, which seems unlikely to happen for several reasons. The lawyers who advised him are unindicted co-conspirators in the case and probably would plead the 5th Amendment. But more importantly, defense lawyers don’t want their clients to testify. Clients make admissions against their own interests and get caught up in their own lies. Mr. Trump’s defense would have difficulty presenting his “mind-set” absent his testimony.


Apart from the legal issues beyond my expertise are the psychological realities. If he did testify, Mr. Trump would likely reveal his true underlying thought process. Criminals always believe they are entitled to do whatever is necessary to get “their” money out of the bank. They know that the law says robbing a bank is illegal, but they believe it applies to other people. Therefore, in their minds, they are not guilty.


Mr. Trump knew he had lost the election but believed he was entitled to win it. And he knew the plan to overturn the election was against the law but believed that the law did not apply to him. In his mind, he was entitled to overturn the election.


We can’t directly observe another person’s beliefs, so we make inferences about someone’s “mind-set.” Mr. Trump’s defenders excuse his actions simply because he states that the election was stolen and that he didn’t do anything wrong. But criminals rarely admit they’ve done anything wrong.


The presumption of innocence is for jurors. But at least one judge and three grand juries have already opined that it is more probable than not that Mr. Trump committed felonies.


Nevertheless, understanding a person’s “state of mind” is no easy task, and prospective jurors may believe the election was stolen and that the ends justify the means. The defense strategy seems aimed at influencing the jury pool with that view.


But should Mr. Trump be allowed to excuse himself by saying, in his opinion, that he won the election and, in his opinion, efforts to delay the certification of the new president were perfectly fine?


Is he entitled to do whatever was necessary to obtain the result he believed should be his? That’s what criminals do.


We are all prisoners of our beliefs. There will be a trial, and we’ll likely hear new evidence. But it’s an open question whether there will be jurors whose opinions are not open to new information or arguments for or against conviction. I’m hesitant to predict much, but the odds are strong that people will disagree no matter the verdict.


For further reading, here is a link to an academic article discussing the connection between entitlement and criminal behavior.


George A. Harris, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in Kansas City. He previously worked in vocational rehabilitation and corrections. He was a consultant to the National Institute of Corrections and was an associate professor of criminal justice at Washburn University before entering private practice providing pre-employment evaluations for police and
correctional agencies and expert witness evaluations for attorneys.

He is the author of numerous books and articles for professional and public audiences, including Counseling the Involuntary and Resistant Client and Broken Ears, Wounded Hearts, which was awarded best book of 1984 by President Reagan’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped. He served on the reader advisor panel for the Kansas City Star. He was a founding board member of L’Arche Heartland, a group home organization for people with developmental disabilities, and along with then police chief Jim Corwin founded a task force on homelessness in Kansas City.

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