Violence perpetrators are basically con artists

Opinion: Police, prosecutors, and judges are too often conned into thinking victims are the 'real' perpetrators, that they are overreacting, or brought the abuse on themselves, argues Carrie Leonetti.

Graphic of mask being held in front of a face

Before I became a full-time academic, I was a criminal defence lawyer. Many, if not most, of my clients were white-collar criminals – fraudsters basically. They were charged with tax evasion, insider trading, and wire, bank, and securities fraud. They ran Ponzi schemes, promised investors huge payouts, and stole life savings. Some clients were decent but naïve businesspeople who got in over their heads, panicked, and lost their own money along with everyone else’s. But many of them were con artists, playing the long con from the start.

Thanks to lawyer-client privilege, I got a unique inside view of their psyches and tactics. Con artists are great at manipulating and bamboozling others. I was the person to whom they revealed their real selves. They minimised their predatory behaviour, blamed their victims, and rationalised the harm they caused through self-serving philosophies and excuses. I heard endless explanations about how their victims were greedy or melodramatic, how they were the real victims, and the system was unfairly skewed against them. Some of them probably believed their own BS, but mostly they were just focused on getting off.

For many clients, the system was just one more mark to be conned. When I would meet with them before their sentencing, they would say something like, “Don’t worry, Carrie. I got this. I know what I need to say to the judge.” Then, during their allocutions, they would “accept responsibility” for their crimes, show “insight” into the harm they inflicted, and express their deep and abiding “remorse”. They were Oscar-worthy performances, often rewarded with sentences of home detention or a few months in “Club Fed”, after which they would start looking for new victims.

Any good con artist will tell you it is the beginning of the relationship that matters and image management is everything. You make yourself too good to be true. You ensure the bogus investment pays off at first, even if you have to pay out of pocket.

These days, I rarely think about shady “investment opportunities”. My research and writing focus is on family and sexual violence. But it turns out that my experience with fraudsters has proven invaluable in my current work. Because many violence perpetrators are basically con artists. They have many of the same pathologies and prey on the same vulnerabilities in their victims and the support systems that fail to protect them. Tactics such as love bombing, gaslighting, guilt tripping, victim blaming, and isolation from people who might warn or protect cut across both sets of offences and offenders.

Any good con artist will tell you it is the beginning of the relationship that matters and image management is everything. You make yourself too good to be true. You ensure the bogus investment pays off at first, even if you have to pay out of pocket. You send flowers, do favours, offer compliments. When the cracks start to show, you make excuses and convince your clients to double down on their investment. When she threatens to leave, you threaten to harm her, tell her the violence is her fault, or explain how no one will believe her.

By the time the losses start piling up, your victims’ initial experience with you will disarm their defences until it is too late to protect themselves. Their shame, embarrassment, and desperate desire to cut their losses will allow you to string them along way past the first red flags. To the outside world, your relationship will seem like a normal partnership. Even if it doesn’t, you will have already moved them away from their supports and secured their commitment to secrecy.

There are still a lot of deeply entrenched cultural stereotypes about family and sexual violence perpetrators – that they are poor, brown, drunk, disruptive, and obviously dangerous. Many perpetrators are none of these things. They are white, well-educated, charming, and manipulative. They share suburbs, schools, professional credentials, and leisure pursuits with the judges and lawyers whom they fool. They are social chameleons, well versed at disarming their audience and discrediting their victims.

They have high levels of psychopathic personality characteristics, which enhance their ability to charm and manipulate decision makers. In many cases, friends and family declare that the person they know could never have committed the acts disclosed by their victims. They just don’t seem like dangerous perpetrators.

Saying sorry is not being sorry. Denial is not exoneration. We need to listen to victims. They are the ones who have seen the monster behind the mask. 

It is crucially important the public institutions that are supposed to protect us do a better job of identifying those who cause harm and avoid becoming inadvertent abettors of their abuse. Too many times, police, prosecutors, and judges are fooled by suggestions that victims are the “real” perpetrators, are hysterical and overreacting, or brought the abuse on themselves.

Perpetrators have spent months or years creating those illusions, exploiting race, gender, and class stereotypes, and counting on the fundamental gullibility of the system and the people within it. Perhaps ironically, research demonstrates that one of the best predictors of a poor safety response to family violence by justice-system professionals is a belief in the fundamental fairness and justice of the world.

I believe people can and do change, but I do not believe that many do so spontaneously and without external consequences to incentivise their reform. In our boundless optimism and hope for rehabilitation, it is crucially important we don't bury our heads in the sand. Saying sorry is not being sorry. Denial is not exoneration. We need to listen to victims. They are the ones who have seen the monster behind the mask. Research demonstrates that victims are excellent barometers of their own risk. When a victim says a perpetrator’s denials are fake or apologies are insincere and tactical, we should not dismiss them as biased or vindictive.

Many people feel our judicial responses to sexual and family violence are hopelessly lenient. I have noticed how central a role a tearful apology and theatrical show of remorse play in reducing a presumptive prison sentence to supervision or determining that a protection order is unnecessary. Judges note how “clearly remorseful” offenders seem or how committed to change they are based on their words and demeanour. These are poor indicators of reduced risk, and discriminatory because of the implicit biases that we all carry.

I remember one of my fraud clients who was sentenced to home detention after giving a moving speech to the judge about how ashamed he was of his conduct and how committed he was to making amends. The copious amount of tears spilling out of his eyes undoubtedly entrenched the impression of sincerity.

The judge couldn’t see the bottom half of his body through the wooden lectern at which he was standing, but I could. He had one hand in his pocket making jerking gestures. I assumed what you’re probably assuming and was horrified. After the hearing, I asked him what he was doing. He told me that he was plucking out pubic hairs one by one during his allocution. To summon tears.

Associate Professor Carrie Leonetti, Faculty of Law, is an internationally recognised expert on the intersection of science and the law.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of Waipapa Taumata Rau University of Auckland.

This article was first published on Newsroom, Violence perpetrators are basically con artists, 23 May, 2023

Media contact

Margo White I Research communications editor
Mob 021 926 408