I came up with this topic on my way back from Wedowee, AL on Saturday. I was thinking of some of the funniest scenes from movies over the years. One of the most well-known and funniest movies is “Meet the Parents.” The funniest part of the movie is when Robert DeNiro is conducting a polygraph examination on his future son-in-law, Ben Stiller. Stiller is sweating bullets as DeNiro interrogates him about all sorts of embarrassing subjects.
Well, lie detector tests, particularly polygraph examinations, actually have their place in real life criminal law and procedure.
Unfortunately, these type of tests do not produce the accurate results that society would like to see. Despite the improvements which have been made over the years, courts in general remain reluctant to admit the results of polygraph tests in evidence. For many years, Georgia courts flat out rejected the admissibility of polygraph evidence.
However, since 1977, there has been as slight relaxation of the attitude of our courts toward the polygraph examination. Polygraph testimony is now said to be admissible when both the defendant and the prosecutor agree in advance of the defendant’s examination that the results will be admissible.
Such an agreement is rare and, in my opinion, very dangerous on behalf of the defendant. There are two good reasons for this. First, a polygraph examiner must possess expertise in the framing of questions to be asked the person being examined. Also, there is at least some room for a subjective judgment in reviewing the results of such a test. Therefore, the examination is no better than the person administering the test.
Second, it is very possible that the jury would give the polygraph testimony more weight than it really deserves. This would take away the jury’s duty to determine who is lying and simply adopt the conclusion of the polygraph examiner.
Polygraphs do have their positives though. They are probably more reliable than some admissible evidence in criminal cases. The best example is eyewitness testimony. Eyewitness testimony is almost always admitted at trials. Yet, recent scientific evidence has clearly shown that this type of evidence is often unreliable and inaccurate. This is particularly true when a trial takes place months or years after an alleged crime is committed.
Polygraphs can also benefit someone who has been accused of a crime. I use my own polygraph examiner in some of my cases. This is a rare circumstance. However, it can sometimes mean the difference between a full blown prosecution and a dismissal. For example, if I have a client in a “he said, she said” criminal case with very little supporting incriminating evidence, I can hire a polygraph examiner to conduct an exam of my client. If my client is found to be truthful, or “not deceptive”, during the examination, I can provide this report to the investigator or prosecuting attorney. This is only done when I have a client who is extremely adamant that he or she is innocent of the accusations made by an alleged victim.
While polygraphs will probably always have a place in the criminal justice system, their role will be limited. As with everything in life, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. If a machine could determine the guilt or innocence of a defendant, we would not have a need for juries, judges, or good solid police work.
I do not believe that any machine can ever take the place of good men and women in our criminal justice system who are honestly seeking the truth.