In 2004, the American Psychological Association said that there’s “little evidence that polygraph tests can accurately detect lies.” There simply isn’t sufficient proof that the physiological responses measured by the so-called “lie detector” machine are actually caused by lying.
For that reason, the results of polygraph tests are received skeptically in the federal courts. Polygraph results can be admitted into evidence, but only as a matter of individual judges’ discretion.
So why is federal justice system using lie detectors as part of therapy?
That was one question before a federal judge in a recent case involving supervised release. In the federal system, supervised release takes place when inmates have served their time. Unlike parole, however, supervised release is not meant as punishment but “to facilitate the reintegration of federal prisoners back into the community,” as the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled recently.
In a hearing before a U.S. District Court in another state, however, a U.S. Attorney asked the court to order a defendant to accept “therapeutic polygraphy” as a condition of his release.
The man had just finished serving 18 months for possessing around 6,000 photos and videos found to be child pornography. He had already been ordered to undergo regular therapy, and his therapist said he was “forthcoming and engaged.”
The reason that wasn’t good enough, according to the Courthouse News Service, seems to be that the defendant insists there’s a relatively innocent explanation for his crime. He was innocently searching for Madonna’s song “Like a Virgin” when he came across the child pornography. Instead of finding it sexually arousing, however, he insists he found it “morbidly intriguing.”
The man’s feelings about the images has no bearing on his guilt, but the U.S. Attorney and a contract psychiatrist claim his explanation shows he hasn’t accepted true responsibility for the crime. They believe requiring him to take polygraph tests will break through his “denial and resistance.”
The defense sees it just the opposite way. While polygraphs are often seen in fiction, the defense psychiatrist points out, in reality they aren’t very accurate. As a matter of fact, 1 in every 5 people who takes a lie detector test will be wrongly marked as lying.
Mandating such a hostile-feeling and inaccurate test is more likely to break down the therapeutic relationship and undermine the very purpose of requiring therapy in the first place.
The hearing lasted three hours and will only determine whether this defendant must undergo the tests. The spotlight is on the federal system, however, as this judge weighs the utility of using polygraphy in the context of supervised release — or any legal context.