Truthiness Serum

Mar 22 2013 @ 7:35am

Judge William Sylvester recently ruled that if Aurora mass-shooter James Holmes wants to plead insanity, he has to undergo narcoanalysis, “in which defendants are injected with drugs to lower their inhibitions and presumably be more willing to tell the truth about their alleged crimes under questioning by prosecutors.” Vaughan Bell delves into the history of the dubious practice:

This was born in the 1920s where the gynaecologist Robert House noticed that women who were given scopolamine to ease the birth process seemed to go into a ‘twilight state’ and were more pliant and talkative. House decided to test this on criminals and went about putting prisoners under the influence of the drug while interviewing them as a way of ‘determining innocence or guilt’. Encouraged by some initial, albeit later recanted, confessions House began to claim that it should be used routinely in police investigations.

This probably would have died a death as a dubious medical curiosity had Time magazine not run an article in their 1923 edition entitled “The Truth-Compeller” about House’s theory – making him and the ‘truth drug’ idea national stars. These approaches became militarised: firstly as ‘narcoanalysis’ was used to treat traumatised soldiers in the World War Two, and secondly as it was taken up by the CIA in the Cold War as a method for interrogation and became a centrepiece of the secret Project MKUltra.

Bell’s conclusion:

There is no evidence that ‘narcoanalysis’ actually helps in any way, shape or form, and at moderate to high doses, some of the drugs may actually impede memory or make it more likely that the person misremembers. I suspect that the actual result of the bizarre ruling in the ‘Colorado shooter’ case will just be that psychiatrists will be able to give a potentially psychotic suspect a simple anti-anxiety drug without the resulting evidence being challenged.

Update from a reader:

The order from the Colorado Court does not state that James Holmes will be given a truth serum; it states “It shall also be permissible to conduct a narcoanalytic interview of you with such drugs as are medically appropriate”.  See item #13 here (pdf) . This part of the judge’s order simply quotes verbatim Colorado Statute 16-8-106(3)(b). The judge and the statute leave it up to the physicians to determine what drugs are “medically appropriate”.  I think the mainstream media, including Time magazine, which you cited as your source, has sensationalized this order and read something into it that it does not say.  If in fact the physicians do decide that it would be medically appropriate to administer a “truth serum” (and I doubt they will), they will still have to be justify to the court that their procedure meets the Daubert Test of being reliable and accepted by the scientific community.