Life in the Balance

Think negotiating a merger or a bigger paycheck is nerve-wracking? Try haggling with a terrorist — or with someone about to kill himself.


“A man named Jim called from the outskirts of a town on the Mojave Desert,” says Chris Neame(caller’s name and other identifying information have been changed to protect privacy).

“He said he was sitting in a hotel room. He had a gun on the table. And he was going to shoot himself.”

Neame is a volunteer crisis counselor at the Suicide Prevention Center of the Didi Hirsch Community Mental Health Center in Los Angeles. It’s one of about 300 such centers that take calls through the nationwide 24-hour hotline, 1-800-SUICIDE. Neame, a former stage actor who speaks in a soothing British-accented baritone, got his crisis counseling training from the Samaritans in London where he volunteered for five years. He’s been with the L.A. center for eight years.

He says that some callers simply need comfort, advice and referrals for therapy. “Jim,” however, is obviously in imminent danger.

It’s up to Neame to negotiate with Jim for Jim’s own life. If he says the wrong thing, or simply fails to say the right thing, Jim may put down the phone and pick up the gun.

“What I’ve always tried to do with my clients, if I can, is try to find something to latch onto, one little ray of light and really expand on it.” explains Neame. “Keep after that thing and keep talking about that thing.”

But Neame knows nothing about the caller or his reasons for wanting to end his life.

“I said, ‘Jim, tell me what’s going on.’” And the man at the other end of the phone line spills his despair into the receiver, somehow able to confide in a stranger about things he didn’t feel he could tell those close to him. His wife, he said, couldn’t have sex any more; something had gone wrong during a surgical procedure on her vagina. Frustrated, Jim started going to prostitutes. He’d gotten caught in a police sting. He would have to go to court. And he was terrified that his wife and children would find out, and he would lose them all.

But the reason Jim gives for wanting to kill himself – worry that he’ll lose the love of those most important to him – is also the clue to saving him. Neame starts asking about Jim’s family, encouraging him to share anecdotes about happy moments.

As Jim talks about his daughters, Neame notices a gradual change. “He started to get softer… He started crying.”

The tears don’t alarm Neame, who has learned that this is a sign of release. And with release of the built-up tension, comes an opening to get a caller to listen to reason. “I could say, because he was very vulnerable then, ‘Jim, please, would you just take the gun and put in the drawer by the bedside table? Think of your children.’”

Jim agrees to do as Neame asks. But Neame can’t assume his caller is out of danger. He has to get Jim to tell him his location so the police can come and, if necessary, take him to a hospital.

No police, insists Jim. The notion of cops descending on this hotel room probably brings back the shame and fear of being caught up in the prostitution sting.

Rather than directly countering Jim’s objections, Neame follows the strategy that has worked so far, re-focusing his caller on the ray of light in what Jim sees as otherwise bleak terrain. Neame suggests that Jim try going to therapy with his wife, and points out that getting help for himself will help his family too.

He tries again for an address, reassuring the distressed man that the cops aren’t going to arrest him or embarrass him. “They’re just going to assess you, that’s all they’re going to do. If they feel you should go to hospital for treatment there then they’ll take you,” Neame recalls saying. This time, Jim says okay and gives his location. Neame stays on the line with him until help arrives.When trying to get suicidal people to see alternatives to their worst case scenario assumptions, Neame says it’s important to avoid getting all “Mary Poppins about it.” He counters the negative thinking that leads to desperation with suggestions anchored in reality. And he guides callers to programs that promise continuing improvement – such as therapy and twelve-step programs.

Focus on the positive but keep it real. In most cases, that paves the way to an agreement to accept help.

The heir to the DuPont Chemical Company’s fortunes, John E. duPont, had long run a training camp on his 800-acre estate in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, where professional wrestlers lived and prepared for competitions. But after his mother died in the late 1980s, duPont began behaving bizarrely. According to a Washington Post article, he complained that the trees on his property were somehow mechanized and moving around. He had razor wire installed inside the attic of his home to protect him from those he suspected were trying to break in and kill him.

One January afternoon in 1996, duPont, then-56, drove up to his wrestling facility, stopped in the driveway in front of Olympic champion David Schultz, pulled out a .44 magnum revolver and, without apparent reason, shot Schultz. The grey-bearded eccentric then sped off to his mansion, re-loaded his gun, and barricaded himself inside.

Police, summoned by Schultz’s wife, demanded his surrender. DuPont refused.

“The officers did not want to approach because they were not sure what they were dealing with,” says Robert Ewing, one of a team of police negotiators who had been called to the scene. “You don’t want to come in there with a SWAT team and possibly get somebody shot. You try to talk the guy out.”

Negotiators tried to reason with duPont on the phone; he ordered them off his estate. “Sometimes he would make comments that he’s the Dalai Lama,” recalls Ewing. But Ewing didn’t believe duPont was completely delusional, “because in other instances he would be asking for people that he knew,” Ewing says. “There was no doubt the man had psychiatric problems. But I don’t think his problems were such that he didn’t know who he was or what he was doing.”

The problem for negotiators was that duPont couldn’t seem to grasp that they weren’t going to let him control the situation. They had to “bring him back down to reality,” says Ewing. “We’re here and we’re not going away. That’s reality.”

They pointed out the police cars, the floodlights they’d set up to light the area as the standoff proceeded into the night. Ewing recalls pressing the same message, over and over again. “There is no other way out. Do what we say and we’ll guarantee that you’re going to be okay.” duPont responded with more demands that they leave – and that they turn off their lights.

Meanwhile, other members of the negotiation team gathered intelligence about duPont from talking to people who knew him. “It lets you know what kinds of conversations to have with him.”

And part of effective crisis negotiation is knowing what not to say; they did not tell duPont that Schultz had died. “We didn’t want him to fear that he was also facing a homicide charge and wouldn’t come out for that reason.”

The first step in any police negotiation, says Ewing, is to calm the person down. Ask what the police can do to help. Find out if there are any small concessions the police can make to gain the person’s trust that won’t affect the outcome. Let him know there is only one way out.

“There has to be a show of force. He has to see that there are people out there in SWAT uniforms and they’re ready to get him. And he’s not going to be able to escape. So he has to deal with us.

“We don’t necessarily have to mention that there’s a SWAT team but he definitely has to be able to see it,”Ewing explains. “You have to let somebody know that there’s definitely risk in their behavior. And you’re the way out of that risk. They have to go through you.”

He says it’s rare for a trapped desperado to make the kinds of demands seen in the movies, such as asking for a helicopter and a million dollars. Says Ewing. “For the short term, there might be a lot of bravado. The person might say, ‘You’re not going to take me,’ or ‘I’m not coming out,’ or ‘Come get me.’ And then you just sort of wait him out and eventually, he’s going to realize, you know, this is stupid. Then they start to talk about how they’re going to come out safely.” Most situations end within a few hours. But duPont was the exception. He still raved at them from inside his mansion well into the second day, and wouldn’t budge. Ewing and the other negotiators decided to ratchet up the pressure.

“It’s not something you want to do right away because you don’t know how he’s going to react. But if you’re not getting a response then sometimes you have to take certain actions.”

On the freezing January evening, they turned off duPont’s heating system. When the millionaire murderer left his house to see what had gone wrong with it, police grabbed him. The stand-off, which had lasted about 48 hours, was over John E. duPont was tried for Schultz’s murder, found guilty but mentally ill, and sentenced to up to 40 years in prison. Ewing, who had been both a patrolman and an attorney at the time of the duPont case, left the force in 1999 to practice law full-time. He says that some of what he learned as a police negotiator applies in his practice.

“You have to make certain demands, let people know you’re willing to back it up. And subtly, calmly, you eventually wear somebody down.”


In most life and death negotiations, the negotiators themselves are not in danger. But some times, to complete a mission, a negotiator has to place his own life at risk. In the case of United Nations undersecretary Giandomenico Picco, he did so, not once, but nine times.

As he walked a deserted street in Beirut, Lebanon, toward the Shi’ite district late one night in August 1991, the 6’4” Picco, in crisp blazer and tie, must have looked wildly out of place. He didn’t know what to expect, only that he would be contacted by members of Hezbollah, an Islamic militant organization that had, since 1984, kidnapped more than a dozen westerners. Hezbollah still held three British and six American hostages, including Terry Anderson, the Associated Press Bureau Chief.Picco heard the screech of brakes. Someone grabbed him, pushed him into a car, and shoved his head down onto the floor. A voice warned him not to look up. After several minutes, he was pulled outside, then pushed into a second vehicle. Same drill: head on the floor; look at nothing
and no one.

After about a half hour, the car stopped. Before leading him up a staircase, someone wrapped Picco’s head in a black hood. When his hood was removed again, he found himself in a room draped with white sheets, obscuring its details. Two men in ski masks entered. Only their eyes were visible.

Unlike Terry Anderson and other Hezbollah hostages, Picco had come by choice. That, however, didn’t assure that he would be freed again. In 1987, British clergyman Terry Waite had arrived in Beirut with the same mission as Picco: to negotiate the release of the hostages. But Waite himself had been kidnapped and was now among those whose freedom Picco hoped to negotiate.

If anyone had a chance to get the hostages out alive, Picco believed, it was he. In 1988, working closely with then-Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar, Picco had helped broker the Iran-Iraq War cease-fire. Iran– Hezbollah’s sponsor and supporter – had reason to be grateful; the war with Iraq had been going badly. “I figured therefore they owe me one and I will go and ask them to help me with this operation in Lebanon,” says Picco.

Iran agreed. The situation looked promising. But as soon as Iran got the kidnappers to free one hostage, a splinter group abducted another off the Beirut streets.

The new abduction signaled that Iran had less control over the terrorists than thought. Picco would have to negotiate with the hostage-takers directly. His contact at the Iranian embassy had arranged this meeting with the men in ski masks.

Terrorists, kidnappers, killers: all of the labels applied to the men before him. But Picco’s strategy in coming to terms with them mirrored, in one vital way, his strategy when negotiating with diplomats in three-piece suits. “Try to find out who the person is – not what he does – who the person is, in every situation.”

In probing for the individuals behind the labels, “I asked them if they’ve got children. And they were very surprised by the question. I said, ‘I don’t know you and you don’t know me so I have to find out what we have in common. And if you are a father like I am, we have a beginning.’ And that was the beginning.”

The masked men, too, were prepared to find common ground with the U.N. under-secretary. His willingness to meet under the current circumstances appears to have struck the right chord with the leader of the two, who called himself, Abdullah.

Abdullah told him that, because Picco had proven he was not afraid to die that showed him to be, in one way, like themselves.

With a sense of each other, not just as adversaries but as individuals, they got down to business. Israel was holding Lebanese prisoners of war. For assurances that Picco would gain release of some of these prisoners, Abdullah agreed to free another American hostage, Edward Tracy, within a day. But if Israel did not reciprocate, he warned, the effect on the remaining hostages would be “devastating.”

At the meeting’s end, Picco was again blindfolded, driven, first in one and then another vehicle, back to near where he had been taken, and released – with agreement that future meetings would follow the same protocol: Picco would be taken from the streets with no assurance he would be released again.

As promised, Tracy was freed the following day, as was the hostage taken by the splinter group.

Israel released some of its Lebanese prisoners of war for information about its own MIAs. The terrorists reciprocated with the release of British hostage, Jackie Mann. Over four months, Picco was taken off the Beirut streets, blindfolded and brought to Abdullah nine times to work out conditions for each hostage release. One by one, the militants freed their captives, until they let go the last American, Terry Anderson, in December 1991.

The extraordinary negotiations brought an end to one of the longest hostage crises in modern history. But the negotiations might not have succeeded without Picco’s unusual opening: a search for what he and Abdullah shared in common.

Picco says, in any negotiation, “To focus on just one definition of what we are is a choice which will lead us to confrontation.” We must instead become aware that we each have a “multiplicity” of ways to identify ourselves, says Picco, “which we should exploit,” to help reach agreement.


Defense attorney Bret Strand knew he had just one chance to save his client’s life. Frank Lee Smith, a prisoner on Florida’s death row, had been sentenced to death for the rape and murder in 1985 of eight-year-old Shandra Whitehead.

A relatively new test that could match DNA from a very small sample had the potential to prove Smith’s innocence beyond any doubt. This test had been deemed admissable by the Florida courts earlier that year. Yet, because of quirks in the law those already convicted don’t automatically get the right to prove their innocence. Strand would have to negotiate with the judge to get the test done and get it admitted into evidence. If the negotiations were successful, Smith would eventually go free. If not, the next step could be lethal injection.

The case against Smith had been all circumstantial – no physical evidence linked him to the crime. A teenaged witness, Chiquita Lowe, had testified that she’d seen a man with a “droopy eye” nearby on the night Shandra was killed. Although Smith’s eyes didn’t droop, she identified him in court as the person she’d seen. The arresting detective swore that Smith had incriminated himself by saying the lights were off in little Chandra’s bedroom. It was as close to a confession as you could get, the prosecution had claimed at trial.

But Smith insisted he had never made any such statement to the detective. And the defense team’s investigator, Jeffrey Walsh, had since amassed a mountain of evidence showing that another man, Eddie Mosely, had committed the crime.Mosely had been identified as a rapist in dozens of cases. Judged criminally insane, he had been in and out of mental institutions since 1973. Among Mosely’s distinguishing features was a droopy eye. And Shandra’s mother was Mosely’s cousin.

Walsh tracked down the state’s star witness, Chiquita Lowe, and showed her Mosely’s photograph. She immediately recognized him as the man she’d seen the night of Shandra’s murder – and recanted her earlier testimony against Smith.

“In my 14 years doing first degree murder cases, it is the clearest case of innocence that I’ve ever seen,” says Strand. And that was without the DNA evidence.

But the prosecution had no incentive to deal on a case it had already won. And it’s was not just the prosecution that’s unwilling to re-examine a conviction.

“We have an elected judiciary in Florida.,” says Strand. “No one wants to be soft on crime.”

Still, if he could get them to agree to the test, that would be proof positive.

The hearing that could finally bring Smith justice began on September 16, 1998.

Strand opened with a request that the DNA be examined by a confidential outside expert.

The prosecutor, Carolyn McCann, objected to a confidential expert, asking that DNA be turned over to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) instead.

“If the defense wants DNA testing, let’s do it now,” McCann is quoted in court documents as saying. “Let’s do it right. Let’s send it to the FDLE. If it comes back Mr. Smith, I want to know it. And if it doesn’t come back him, I want to know that, too.”That presented a problem for Strand. “Frank did not want the DNA evaluated by FDLE,” explains Strand because he felt he’d been framed by a Florida sheriff’s detective.

The judge suggested a compromise: let the FBI test it.

That gave Strand a workable deal. But before he could consent, he had to bring the deal to his client. He says Smith told him, “‘Test it right now as long as those guys that framed me don’t have anything to do with it.’”

When the hearing resumed, Strand felt confident that the deal arranged by the judge would result in Smith’s release from death row. Except, that’s not what happened.

Strand and McCann negotiated for a few moments about whether the prosecution could use the DNA against Smith if it showed him to be the killer. Since Strand knew the test could only help his case, “My next negotiating position was to agree to all terms,” says Strand. “And once I had agreed to all terms, they withdrew their agreement.” McCann reversed herself, objecting to any DNA testing even though previously, she’d insisted she wanted it done. She claimed that Strand should have asked for DNA testing years before. Now, she said, its admission into evidence would be “procedurally barred.” The judge, reversing his earlier decision, sustained McCann’s objection; he refused to send the DNA to the FBI.

Court documents show McCann’s explanation for her reversal: She’s quoted saying that she asked for DNA testing because she believed – wrongly, as it turned out – that “the defense wouldn’t do it.,” unless tested by a confidential expert.

No deal can work if one party doesn’t want it to.

In December 2000, a Fort Lauderdale, Florida sheriff’s detective re-opened another case in which he suspected an innocent man had been convicted of a murder actually committed by Eddie Mosely. He sent off the DNA from the case to a lab which scientifically proved, as he had guessed, that the wrong man had been convicted. Mosely’s DNA was a match; he had committed the murder. The innocent man was released from prison.

Under pressure from this revelation, the prosecution sent the DNA from the Shandra Whitehead case to the FBI lab. This sample, too, matched Eddie Mosely. Smith finally was exonerated. But it was too late to set him free. Frank Lee Smith had developed pancreatic cancer while waiting for justice to find him on Florida’s death row. He’d died 10 months earlier.

Strand has since moved to Wyoming where he represents people trying to collect the child support they’re due. Surprisingly, he says he doesn’t think it’s worthwhile to spend outrage on the raw deal that Frank Lee Smith got. He quotes Mother Jones: “Pray for the dead. Fight like hell for the living.”

A shorter version of this article – which won the ASJA Outstanding Article Award for 2004 in the business category – appeared in Jungle Magazine.