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

"He's straight up and honest," adds Mark Troy. "If you pass an Eric Holden polygraph, you're innocent. If you have a client that fails, he'll extract a confession from him. He's probably had more confessions than passing people."

Located in a nondescript office park in Richardson, Holden's company--Behavioral Measures and Forensic Services--has the hushed, carpeted ambiance of a doctor's office. In glassed-in laboratories, subjects are hooked up to elaborate machines and questioned by one of four full-time and five part-time examiners, whose sessions Holden can monitor from a closed-circuit television in his office. No doubt it is the only office in the park with its own sally port, a secured area into which police cars transporting people in custody can drive. The business even maintains a toll-free number: (877) LIE-GUYS.

His large enterprise is a testament to both his skill and the growing demand for the services in general. Lying, apparently, is a growth industry.

In recent years, polygraph examinations have gained a certain degree of credibility, thanks to technological advances in the machinery, efforts to standardize the process of administering the tests, studies attesting to their efficacy, and recent court cases that have cleared the way for their limited use in court proceedings.

In spite of all this, the profession still battles to be taken seriously as a science and is still sorely misunderstood. "There's a lot of myth-information out there," Holden says. "[Veteran criminal-defense attorney] Mike Gibson recently told me he believes 80 percent of the criminal bar is misinformed about the polygraph's accuracy and validity."

Troy, a 35-year lawyer, says the polygraph profession still has too many shady operators willing to pass anyone for the right price. "But I still think they should be used more," he says. "Lawyers and prosecutors waste a lot of time on dog cases where the person should never have been indicted. We could get rid of a lot more cases if they were used more."

Coggins agrees. "I think they can be more effectively used in law enforcement," he says. "But I don't have Holden's degree of confidence in them."

Holden insists that, done properly, a polygraph examination can detect deception at least 95 percent of the time. When a computer is used to analyze the polygraph data, the accuracy rate climbs to more than 98 percent, he adds, citing recent studies conducted by several universities, including Johns Hopkins.

The science works, Holden says. It's the examiners who make the errors by not asking the right questions or misinterpreting the data. "When physicians make mistakes, we don't say medicine doesn't work. And when a lawyer makes a mistake, we don't blame the law; we say it is ineffective assistance of counsel."

In short, the exam is only as good as the person giving it, and therein lies the problem.

Holden frequently likens polygraphs to X-rays. Instead of taking a picture of disease or injury inside the body, the exam captures a picture of truthfulness or deceit about a given issue. "And just as with an X-ray, you need a clear picture and someone skilled to read it," he says.

In the polygraph profession today, however, it's as if only a handful of technicians and doctors were properly trained to operate and evaluate X-rays, but everyone is allowed access to the machinery. Ensuring that whoever reads the exam has the necessary skills is the problem.

The industry has gone a long way toward developing professional standards for administering polygraph exams, but it has been lax in ensuring that its practitioners are properly educated, licensed, and regulated. In other words, it hasn't taken the steps necessary to clean up the business and reduce the chances of examiner error.

Half the states don't require polygraph examiners to be licensed, and those that do have weak licensing requirements at best. In Texas, for example, examiners do not even have to have a high school diploma, nor do they have to attend an accredited polygraph school. And none of the states requires continuing education for license renewal.

As a past president of both the Texas Association of Polygraph Examiners and the American Polygraph Association, Holden has fought and lost many battles to instill quality control. "It's very political, but I assure you, professional and competent examiners want it.

"We have to do better at bringing people into the field who are students of human behavior, who understand crime and the interviewing process," he adds. "We've done such a poor job regulating ourselves and in setting up stringent standards demanding quality education, continuing education and training, and a demonstration of capability."

He thinks the profession will improve once examiners have to start defending their work in court. But the profession's detractors think Holden has it backward.

Eric Holden never intended to detect lies for a living. After obtaining a master's in psychology from Baylor University, he went to work as a staff psychologist in the Texas prison system, where he heard more than his share of lies.

When his mentor--famed forensic psychiatrist Dr. John Holbrook, who evaluated Jack Ruby for the state--left the prison system, he took Holden with him, first to Bryan, where they set up a community-based mental-health-care system, then to Dallas, where Holbrook was about to embark on an exciting new project.

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