Truthiness Serum, Ctd

by Chris Bodenner

A reader adds a first-hand perspective to a recent post:

I have no idea whether narcoanalysis will be useful as a psycho-diagnostic technique or as a law enforcement or intelligence gathering device, although it does seem less onerous than waterboarding. I do know that it can be very useful to the criminal defense attorney in certain limited instances. In the early part of my career I defended more than 50 homicide cases and found the technique to be very useful in three cases. I was fortunate to have the services of an experienced psychiatrist who had used it in treating what we now call PTSD in WW2 veterans suffering from repressed memories of traumatic events.

My first and most helpful experience was with a man who had undoubtedly shot and killed his wife but could not recall exactly how or why. When pressed to recall the event he could do so up to a point and then would start belching – a rather bizarre response. He was under indictment for second-degree murder under circumstances that suggested an execution-style killing. He had come back from a visit to the factory where he was employed while it was on strike.

The first indication that he was being truthful while undergoing the amytal interview came when he contradicted an earlier account of the reason for his visit to the strike scene. Before the medicated interview he said he had gone there to see how it was going. Under amytal he said he had gone there to try to get on television.

At the crucial point in the interview, for the first time he described how while he was pointing the gun at his wife to try to get her to admit a marital indiscretion, she grabbed the gun and jerked it downward, causing it to discharge. The 15-degree downward angulated entrance wound suggested she might have been on her knees begging for mercy without the revered memory he had suppressed.  I played the recording of the interview for the grand jury, who returned a superseding indictment for manslaughter, based on causing death while in the commission of the unlawful act of threatening her with a gun.

On another occasion I used the technique to gain some confirmation of my client’s claim that although he had gone along on a burglary, it was his partner who suddenly displayed a gun and killed two elderly people. His account of this was accompanied by the emotional response one would expect under these circumstances. He still went to prison for murder, but his partner was sentenced to death.

In another case the client admitted the complicity of another that he had refused to acknowledge even when confronted with evidence that only made sense if another was involved. More that admitting the involvement of another, he identified the person, which he confirmed when confronted with the tape recording.

All these people were of modest intellect. It is accepted that a thoroughgoing sociopath can lie even under  the influence of amytal. Ordinarily, an attorney would not bother to use the technique with that kind of defendant.

The above video is a scene from John Huston’s Let There Be Light, a 1946 documentary about the experimental treatment program for traumatized WWII veterans that employed hypnosis and sodium amytal. From the film’s Wiki page:

The film, commissioned by the United States Army Signal Corps, was the final entry in a John Huston trilogy of films produced at the request of the U.S. Government. This documentary film follows 75 U.S. soldiers who have sustained debilitating emotional trauma and depression. … The film was controversial in its portrayal of shell-shocked soldiers from the war. “Twenty percent of our army casualties”, the narrator says, “suffered psychoneurotic symptoms: a sense of impending disaster, hopelessness, fear, and isolation.” Apparently due to the potentially demoralizing effects the film might have on recruitment, it was subsequently banned by the Army after its production, although some pirated copies had been made.