A forensic psychologist on what it's really like meeting murderers

·7-min read
Photo credit: Katie Wilde - Getty Images
Photo credit: Katie Wilde - Getty Images

For the majority of us, the life of a forensic psychologist (read: single-handedly tracking down terrifying serial killers and bringing them to justice through sharp psychoanalysis) is mostly based on what we've seen on TV. But the reality? That's not quite right... and there's a whole lot more to it, says Kerry Daynes, a forensic psychologist of twenty-plus years.

Her impressive career has seen her work on some of the most high profile cases in the world, including with Ian Brady (The Moors Murderer) and Dennis Nilsen (thought to have up to fifteen victims). It's also seen her pen a book about her experiences, as well as lending her expertise to investigative programmes like Discovery's, Faking It - where she deep dives into whether or not the likes of Michael Jackson and Chris Watts were guilty or innocent of their accused heinous crimes.

"In a nutshell, my job involves dealing with criminal behaviour of all levels," Daynes explains, adding that she works with people at all stages of the justice system - be it assessing somebody who is suspected of committing a serious crime, such as a violent rape or killing, to speaking with and supporting victims of such horrors. "The interest in true crime is huge these days, but it worries me how often the focus is on glamourising awful events."

She continues, "The recent Netflix series about Ted Bundy resulted in loads of people saying they found him sexy, when he's anything but - often serial killers tend to be very ordinary, and that's why they get away with it. They're actually crushingly boring, I used to get telephone calls from Dennis Nilsen, who I've met in prison, and he'd just drone on and on about himself."

Moaning murderers aside, even after more than two decades of poring over images of crimes scenes and victim statements, Daynes says she still gets a burst of adrenaline and comes over hot and cold when confronted with the darkest elements of the human mind.

"If I ever became fully desensitised to it, that's when I'd quit," she says firmly. "It's hard separating your emotions from the job sometimes, especially if I'm working with, say, a child predator, but you have to. Otherwise you wouldn't be doing your best work."

Photo credit: Courtesy of Kerry Daynes | Discovery+  - Getty Images
Photo credit: Courtesy of Kerry Daynes | Discovery+ - Getty Images

There's no such thing as 'good' and 'evil' people

"I don't spend all of my time pursuing serial killers," Daynes add, stressing that our constant exposure to crime dramas and murder-based documentaries has almost blown out of proportion the small number of people who set out to kill. "Serial killers are not on the increase, there are between two and four operating in the UK at any one time... which is either terrifying or reassuring, depending on how you look at it."

Nowadays, Daynes says, the majority are caught after one murder, before they can commit any more, due to improved technology and policing (which is again, either terrifying or reassuring depending on your standpoint).

Her sessions with such individuals, or other perpetrators, all start differently; sometimes Daynes will go through an IQ test with them ("It's a myth that serial killers are hyper-intelligent," she says, "Fred West's IQ was in the 70s"), or various other measurements and checklists. "I always like to get to the human within," Daynes says, when asked how she approaches those initial meetings. "To understand an inhuman act, you have to understand the human drivers behind it. Most people who commit unthinkable crimes are motivated by money, lust or power."


Her career has seen her come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as a 'good' or 'evil' person either, only good or evil acts. "The vast majority of offenders have grown up in poverty, or experienced trauma themselves. It's not an excuse for their behaviour, but it does go some way to explain it." She adds that the "holy grail" is when she waves goodbye to a patient who she's helped to get back on the straight and narrow.

"I always say to them 'I hope I never see you again'," Daynes adds. "But the system is all wrong. We really need to be putting interventions in earlier, so people don't reach the point where they commit unspeakable acts." One case in point that she gives is a "sadistic man, who early on had a history of exposing himself". Daynes believes his motivation was the feeling of power he gleamed from seeing fear in his victim's eyes. He then went on to more serious crimes, leaving the question: could they have been prevented if he'd received treatment, or a been apprehended, sooner?

"We put solutions in all the wrong stages," she comments. "We should actually be trying to prevent crime by tackling poverty, inequality, discrimination, and trauma and adversity. But we don't. We just label the people who do things that break our laws and say there's something wrong with them."

How to interview a murderer

Over the years, Daynes says, she's learnt that you can get more information out of people (which can eventually help to solve a crime) when you're informal, rather than when there's a desk between you. "I once had a patient who was interested in cooking, I set up a cookery session for us and it was while dismembering a turkey that he turned and said to me 'This is what I did to the victim'. It was the most surreal moment."

However, she caveats, it's anecdotes like that which pepper her career, rather than make it. Sometimes though, what Daynes has seen or heard during the day (be it while working in a prison or on a psychiatric ward) can accompany Daynes home too. "I remember once I was making a sandwich using a slice of Swiss cheese and all I could think about was how it resembled a victim who'd been stabbed," she recalls. "You see, when somebody is stabbed when they're already dead, the blood doesn't pour out but it forms dark circles on the body... like Swiss cheese."

As is standard for those in the field of psychology, Daynes has had therapy herself. She credits having a dark sense of humour - along with decompressing by watching trash TV (Say Yes To The Dress being a favourite) - for keeping her happy and grounded, despite the tough day job.

Photo credit: Image Source - Getty Images
Photo credit: Image Source - Getty Images

How do you become a forensic psychologist?

If all of the above sounds appealing, you may be wondering how it's possible to get a job as a forensic psychologist. First of all, word of warning: it's a highly sought after role. "The psychology field is a bit like the Hunger Games," Daynes confirms. "There's so much competition in psychology as it's endlessly fascinating. Interestingly, 85% of forensic psychologists are women – women who mostly work with male offenders."

She continues on to say that she initially wanted to be an advertising executive and was told by her careers advisor that taking psychology would be a good idea. "I took Psychology at University of Sheffield, and the honest truth is that there was a really good looking boy in the law class," Daynes laughs. "When I had to choose my subsidiaries to go with psychology, I chose law because I wanted to sit behind him in class! I never actually plucked up the courage to talk to him and soon lost interest in him, but gained an interest in the law."

Wanting to put law and psychology together, Daynes then volunteered in a maximum security prison. Since then she's worked in various jails, courts, secure hospitals and police stations.

"It's endlessly fascinating, it really is," she says, reflecting on her 25 years of work. "I've got a passion for it that's never, ever waned. It's hard work and as I say, people think that it's glamorous, there's nothing glamorous about it at all. I've had rats eat my lunch out of my bag during prison visits and come home covered in mud after looking for murder weapons – you always come home covered in something. But I wouldn't change a thing."

Read more about Kerry Daynes' career here:

Kerry Daynes appears in Chris Watts: A Faking It Special exclusively on discovery+

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