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

Federal Judge Sarah T. Hughes wanted to start a classification system in the Dallas jail in order to separate violent and nonviolent offenders. In preparation for the project, which was to be funded with federal grants, Holbrook thought it a good idea if Holden, who by now was also his son-in-law, became a licensed polygraph examiner.

A dispute between the judge and the Dallas County sheriff held up the funds indefinitely, but Holden wasn't too disappointed. He had found a new career to pursue, and he learned about criminal law from some of the best defense attorneys in town.

"Lawyers taught me that the best criminal-defense lawyers never want anything but the best professional opinions," Holden says. "They want to know the truth to prepare the best defense or get their client the best possible deal."

In time, Holden's reputation for integrity grew, and he became one of a handful of polygraph examiners respected by defense attorneys and prosecutors, one of even fewer whose test results can make prosecutors re-evaluate their cases.

"I don't always take Holden's word, but it can mean a lot," says Norm Kinne, first assistant district attorney of Dallas County.

In fact, a Holden polygraph helped convince the district attorney's office last year that prosecutors did not have enough evidence in the murder case against Maria Perez. An Irving mother, Perez lost two children in an apartment fire that raged while she was having coffee at a neighbor's. The Irving police found an empty gas can in the house and traces of what they believed was gasoline on the children's pajamas. They arrested Perez on suspicion of murder. Perez's attorney found that the woman had used some homemade carpet cleaner made from detergent and a degreaser, which might have caused the fire to spread more rapidly. That fact, coupled with Holden's polygraph results, which an examiner hired by the district attorney's office replicated, led prosecutors to drop the case against Perez.

Holden's reputation extends beyond Dallas. A few years ago, Gary Graham, a death-row inmate from Houston, became a national cause celebre, with stars such as Danny Glover calling for the state to reopen his case. Convicted of killing a man in 1981, Graham claimed he had four alibi witnesses who could vouch for his whereabouts on the night of the murder, but his lawyers did not call them to testify. Only two of them testified in an appeal hearing. In 1993, all four had submitted to polygraph tests, and an examiner concluded they were telling the truth about being with Graham the night of the murder. At the request of the Houston Chronicle and the Texas Attorney General's Office, Holden and the Department of Public Safety looked at the examiner's charts to see whether they came to the same conclusion.

Neither Holden nor the DPS examiner agreed with the examiner's finding that the witnesses were truthful. Miffed, the polygraph examiner defended his conclusions, saying that he based his opinion, in part, on what he observed while he was giving the test and that the others hadn't witnessed what he had during the examination.

"Everyone is entitled to their opinion," Holden countered. "Except, in a polygraph examination that opinion has to be based exclusively on data from the charts. If it comes from anything else, it is a human opinion, not a professional opinion."

One gets the sense that Holden stores a treasure trove of secrets about some of Dallas' sexiest crime stories and most elite citizens. "Oh, I have files that would turn this county on its ear," he says tantalizingly. "You can't imagine the people who come here after hours." But Holden won't part with a one, which is understandable. He no doubt got this far, in part, by being discreet.

Demand for polygraph services has exploded in the last decade, Holden says, with the advent of sexual harassment and child abuse cases, in which there is frequently no physical evidence.

Holden also has been instrumental in helping to develop new arenas for his work, most notably in the burgeoning area of sex-offender probation monitoring. Polygraphs are now frequently given to pedophiles on supervised probation. Examiners determine their truthfulness on subjects ranging from whether they still fantasize about molesting children--which sexual abuse experts believe is the first step to re-offending--to whether they've violated any terms of their probation. Ironically, a procedure that wouldn't be accepted as evidence in a criminal trial can help determine whether an offender goes back to prison.

Polygraphs operate on the principle that when a person is lying, and is afraid he's about to be exposed, he exhibits measurable changes in his heart rate, breathing cycles, and the amount of perspiration. To capture a reading of those changes, a subject is fitted with pressure cuffs around his upper arms, breathing and heart monitors around his stomach and chest, and electrodes on his fingertips. The data from the monitors is recorded on the charts simultaneously; in the newer machines, it is stored electronically then printed out later.

Despite conventional wisdom, polygraph examiners claim that sociopaths cannot inherently beat an exam, provided it is properly given. "They may not have a conscience or feel any guilt about their behavior," says Holden, "but we're not measuring guilt. We're measuring fear of exposure."

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