The Lie Detector

From the mayor of Atlanta, who was unjustly accused of graft, to a California man wrongly sentenced to life in a Texas prison, polygraph examiner Eric Holden found the truth that helped set them free

On the surface, William Campbell, Ricky Dale Thomas, and Adonis Baxter have little in common. Campbell is the mayor of Atlanta; Thomas is a California short-order cook and onetime petty thief; Baxter is a Richardson High School graduate who was charged with capital murder in the shooting death of a milk-truck driver in South Dallas.

What these three men share is an abiding appreciation for the work of Eric Holden, a Richardson-based polygraph examiner who hooked them up to his lie detector and profoundly altered the course of their lives.

William Campbell, for instance, credits Holden for saving his first mayoral bid, which was threatened by rumors, circulated by his opponent, that a federal grand jury was investigating him for taking a bribe from an airport concessionaire. On the eve of the 1993 election, Campbell surreptitiously flew to Dallas in the middle of the night, and Holden examined him until daybreak. By the close of the following day, Campbell held a news conference announcing that "one of the most prominent polygraph examiners in the country" found he was truthful when asked whether he had accepted a bribe. He won the election handily and won re-election last year.

Several years ago, CBS' Street Stories hired Holden to give a polygraph to Ricky Dale Thomas, who was serving a life sentence in a Texas prison, convicted of mugging two women in Sulphur Springs. Thomas insisted he was the victim of mistaken identity. The women did not get a good look at their assailant, and work records showed that Thomas, a cook at a California Fuddruckers restaurant, was on the West Coast the day of the crime. But a Texas state trooper testified that he was certain Thomas was the man he had stopped for speeding the night of the attack. The driver identified himself as Richard Thomas, and in an effort to help find the mugger, the trooper checked criminal records and discovered that a Ricky Dale Thomas had spent time in a Texas prison on two theft convictions. The trooper identified a picture of Ricky Dale Thomas as the man he stopped that night.

CBS agreed to investigate Thomas' claim of innocence, provided he first pass a lie-detector test administered by Holden. CBS eventually found the real assailant--the driver of the speeding car and a career criminal who frequently used the alias Richard Thomas. After spending almost three years in prison, Ricky Dale Thomas was released.

An eyewitness account almost put Adonis Baxter on death row also. In late January 1997, a milk-truck driver making a delivery to the Borden plant in South Dallas was shot to death. Schepps Dairy offered a $25,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the killer. A convicted thief and drug addict with the street name Kitty Cat told police she saw the men who committed the murder. Kitty Cat gave the police two names: Baxter, a recent graduate of Richardson High who briefly rented a room from Kitty Cat's friend, and Reginald Wheeler, a Pleasant Grove man with a record of felony drug possession. No physical evidence linked them to the murder, and the two men claimed they didn't even know each other, but a grand jury nonetheless indicted them on capital murder charges. Kitty Cat collected $10,000 of the reward money.

With bail set at half a million dollars, the two men were destined to remain in jail until the trial. Baxter's mother hired veteran criminal defense attorney Mark Troy to represent her son. Troy believed his client was innocent and hoped to persuade the Dallas County District Attorney's Office to drop the charges. He immediately retained Holden to test both his client and his alleged accomplice, who had a court-appointed attorney with limited funds.

Both men passed. The police, however, were not interested in reopening the investigation. So Troy dispatched a private detective to find the person witnesses saw fleeing the murder scene. The detective tracked down the suspect--a 17-year-old doing time in a juvenile facility on an unrelated offense. Within 20 minutes, he confessed to participating in the murder--though not as the shooter--and gave a sworn statement that Baxter and Wheeler were not involved.

Prosecutors dismissed the charges against Baxter and Wheeler, who had spent eight months in jail.

"Holden's work in this case was instrumental," says Troy. "He's one of only a few polygraph examiners everyone trusts."

Trust--the whole issue of polygraph tests revolves around it. Do you trust the science? Can you trust the examiners? Are the results trustworthy enough to be used in court? Holden makes a convincing argument that the field has advanced to the point that it can--and should--be trusted in a courtroom.

But not everyone is buying that, and for good reason.

A former prison psychologist, Eric "Rick" Holden is equal parts grand inquisitor, compassionate counselor, and savvy student of the human psyche--qualities that are essential to the delicate and complex task of detecting deception. After 24 years in the business, he has become one of the most respected members of a profession that still struggles for respect.

"I never encountered anyone with a better reputation in this field," says U.S. Attorney Paul Coggins, who used Holden's services frequently when he was in private practice, defending white-collar criminals. "He spends a lot of time preparing for the exam, understanding the narrative of the case, so he can ask fact-specific questions. And he spends a lot of time giving the test--a half a day and sometimes more."

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