August 29, 2014

Elyria
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test

Do polygraphs detect the truth, or are they pseudo science?

When the 12 men and women determine the fate of 18-year-old Willie Evans IV, they will certainly look back to the testimony delivered on Sept. 11.

Last Tuesday, professional polygraphist William Evans II (who is not related to the defendant) testified that the defendant had failed the polygraph test he administered. 

Does this seal the fate of Willie Evans, charged with first-degree murder of Michael A. Smith?

Should it?

The use of polygraph results in court cases, which has been hotly debated for decades, has eluded a clear consensus on their accuracy.

A recent article submitted by the Committee of Concerned Social Scientists concludes after significant research that polygraph testing is a “valid application of psychological science” with a “known but acceptable error rate,” and that it does not overwhelm jurors.

Many people, though, still stand firmly opposed to allowing polygraph results to be used as evidence in court cases.

“These polygraph results should not be considered evidence at all,” said George Maschke, co-founder of antipolygraph.org.

“It can play a major role in determining if this kid will spend his life free or imprisoned, and there’s just no scientific data to support that it should,” he said.

But Charles Honts, a professor of psychology at Boise State University and a licensed polygraphist for more than 30 years, believes that there is.

“This is an empirical question, and it can be answered with data — polygraphs have proven time and time again to be accurate. I have testified in court for years that they should be admissible,” he said.

Honts admits there are ambiguities. “There are people involved. Just like in psychological tests, there could be human error,” he said.

“A polygraph is only as good as the person operating it,” said Donnie Todd, owner of Quest Consultants in Delaware, Ohio.

“An examiner can drastically affect the accuracy of polygraph results,” said Todd, who has administered more than 4,000 examinations.

William D. Evans II has a great deal of polygraph experience under his belt.

For more than 30 years, he has performed polygraph tests and has become convinced over time of their accuracy.

“They’re amazing investigative tools. Polygraph accuracy far exceeds eyewitness testimony, which has been measured as 70 to 75 percent accurate — tops,” Evans said.

“Polygraphs are 95 to 98 percent accurate,” he said. “Assuming I could pick my examiner, I would stake my freedom on a polygraph,” he said.

Maschke, though, would not.

“They’re junk science,” he said. “Voodoo. The only people who say that polygraphs have 98 percent accuracy have a vested, financial interest in them,” he said.

Honts strongly disagrees with this claim.

“Although there is ambiguity involved, the study of polygraphs has become a lot more scientific in recent years,” he said.

This was made clear in a study published just this year. In an attempt to compare polygraph studies with strictly scientific tests (like X-rays and ultrasound) and psychological studies (like personality tests), the polygraph performed surprisingly well — equal to or better than the other two in various tests, according to “A Comparative Analysis of Polygraph with other Screening and Diagnostic Tools,” Honts said.

“The world community is recognizing the accuracy and reliability of polygraphs. Their use is growing worldwide — fast,” Honts said.

In response to these studies, Maschke said that the author, Philip E. Crewson, “errs by saying that polygraph ‘testing’ is scientifically comparable to others.”

Quoting another study, Maschke said Dr. Alan Zelicoff examined polygraph results in real-world conditions and found that “if a subject fails a polygraph, the probability that she is, in fact, being deceptive is little more than chance alone.”

“It’s basically a coin flip,” Maschke said.

As Willie Evans can do little more than sit back and watch, he is certainly hoping that his freedom will not be determined by an unlucky coin flip.

In Ohio, polygraph results are only admissible in court if both the prosecution and defense agree before the test.

The jury will certainly consider the importance of the fact that, according to William D. Evans, the polygraph detected “signs of deception” when the defendant was asked whether he shot Smith, ever held Smith’s wallet and whether he was present at the trunk of the car in which Smith was found dying.   

Anthony Nici, a veteran attorney with an offices in Avon, has had extensive experience with polygraphs. He said that the tests — while notoriously variable and infrequently admitted as evidence — do hold a large amount of sway when it comes to the jury.

“In high-profile cases,” Nici said, “I often immediately test my clients so that I can know. And if they pass, I try and get them submitted as evidence.”

Nici said it is difficult — but of the utmost importance — to find a reliable examiner.

“There are only a couple of reliable examiners in the whole state. They’re becoming harder and harder to find,” he said.

Evans, who has worked for both prosecution and defense attorneys, said the results of his exams help put the guilty in jail and keep the innocent out — and are a lot more reliable and complex than “heads or tails.”

Jeff Gamso, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, has some doubts about this analysis.

“In general, we don’t trust the results of polygraphs. There are just too many factors that can affect the outcome. And it’s all too easy for a jury to be misled by them.”

Willie Evans’ attorney, Paul Griffin, also raised concerns about the validity of the tests and asked county Common Pleas Judge Christopher Rothgery to bar the results.  Griffin suggested that external factors such as explosions, thunder or a police presence could affect the results of a test.  Rothgery denied the request.

“The defense attorney’s critique was woefully inadequate,” Mashke said.  “He didn’t attack the fundamental shortcomings of polygraphs at all.”

“I don’t know many defense attorneys who would readily consent to a polygraph examination for their clients due to the concerns about their validity,” Gamso said.

“It certainly indicates a bad gamble on the part of the defense,” he said.

While we will eventually be informed of the fate of Willie Evans IV, we may never know what role the “gamble” — the polygraph — played in the jury’s decision.

Contact Michael Baker at 329-7155 or metro@chroniclet.com.