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."

"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.

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."

Nervousness is not an impediment either. Examiners want their subjects to be somewhat nervous. But that doesn't affect the results of a polygraph, because when a person lies, his reactions, as captured on the polygraph charts, differ from the reaction caused by nervousness.

A polygraph compares a person's reaction to questions an examiner knows the subject is lying about with questions an examiner is not sure about. The most crucial part of the exam takes place in the lengthy pretest interview. During this segment, Holden gains the subject's trust, discusses the facts of the case, formulates test questions with the subject, and alternately puts the subject at ease and makes him acutely aware of the consequences of the test. It is important that the examiner stay neutral: "If you accuse, you lose," Holden tells the classes he teaches at the Department of Public Safety's Law Enforcement Polygraph Academy, where he is on the teaching faculty.

Next, he hooks the subject up to the polygraph machine and asks a series of questions. One set of questions is neutral and nonthreatening, designed to cause little physiological reaction. The second set, called control questions, is designed to get the subject to purposely lie about something significant. This is tricky but crucial to obtaining accurate test results. Finally, Holden asks between two and five carefully honed questions pertaining to the issues in a case he's helping to resolve.

It is imperative that the questions not be ambiguous or open-ended, and not leave any loopholes or room for interpretation. (You can bet if Holden were questioning President Clinton about having sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky, he would have nailed down the definition of sex with Clinton first.)

After carefully evaluating and scoring the charts showing a subject's reaction pattern to the questions, Holden renders an opinion about whether a subject is being truthful or not. Sometimes the results can be inconclusive. Before sending the results to a client, he shows the charts to one or two other in-house examiners as part of routine quality control. In particularly high-profile or controversial cases, he sends the data--minus his conclusions--to top experts around the country to corroborate his findings.

Do two reputable examiners ever look at the same results and come to different conclusions? "Yes, it happens," Holden admits, "but if it is a disagreement among professionals, it means there is a mistake in the data, and we'll find it. Maybe it is a bad test question or an improper interview."

Holden is asked whether he has ever seen a case in which someone is examined by two reputable examiners who follow standardized procedures and ask the same questions, but who come up with different conclusions.

"Never," he says.
Even if the procedures are followed to the letter, however, a polygraph is only as worthwhile as the questions asked. Nothing illustrates that point better than the lie-detector test Darin Routier failed last spring.

A jury convicted Routier's wife, Darlie, of murdering their two sons in the couple's Rowlett home, but many people, including Waco businessman Brian Pardo, refused to believe she was guilty. In an effort to help get her conviction overturned, Pardo asked Darin Routier to submit to a polygraph in order to exclude him as a suspect.

Without seeing videotape of the testing session and a copy of the polygraph charts, Holden has no way of knowing if the test was administered properly. But even a layperson could tell that the questions the examiner put to Routier--a copy of which was obtained by the Dallas Observer--weren't specific enough to determine what, if any, role he had in the boys' murder.

Routier was asked the following: Were you involved in any plan to commit a crime in your home in June 1996? Did you, yourself, stab Darlie on June 6, 1996? Do you know exactly who left the sock in the alley? (A blood-stained sock from the home was found in an alley nearby. Police believe it was placed there to make it appear as though the boys' killer fled the house.) Can you name the person who stabbed your sons?

The examiner reported that Routier was deceptive when he answered "no" to each question. Beyond indicating that Routier knew more about what happened that night than he ever let on--which the prosecutors have suspected all along--the only additional information the test suggests is that Routier stabbed his wife. It's a juicy tidbit, but what does it mean? Did he stab her as part of an attempt to cover up the murder? Could he have stabbed her while she was sleeping without her knowledge?

The exam is ultimately useless, for it raises far more questions than it answers--a cardinal polygraph sin.

For most of this century, the judicial system's prevailing view of lie detector tests was that they existed in the twilight zone of scientific acceptance. That was the conclusion a federal court of appeals came to in 1923. That opinion kept polygraph-examination testimony out of the courtroom until 1989, when the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that lie detectors had gained general acceptance in the scientific community. The decision allowed for them to be entered as evidence in trials in a few, limited circumstances.

In 1993, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that the test for polygraph testimony is governed by the rules for all scientific evidence--that it must be both credible and relevant.

Today, 26 states have allowed polygraph exams into evidence in some form--either when both sides agree to allow it, or only in front of a judge, or for appeals purposes. But in Texas, thus far no polygraph examiner has convinced a judge that lie detectors are reliable enough to allow him to testify in front of a jury.

As far as prosecutor Norm Kinne is concerned, that's as it should be. While he believes polygraph examiners provide a useful tool in the investigative process, he doesn't think they have any place in a jury trial.

"I know the examiners are going to jump up and down and get mad at me, but I think it's still an art, not a science," he says. "If the testing were truly scientific, different examiners should be able to obtain the same result when testing a defendant. But we have cases where someone fails one exam and passes another."

He points to the high-profile case of Walker Railey, the infamous Methodist minister who was acquitted by a jury in 1993 in the attack on his wife that left her severely brain damaged. According to Kinne, Railey took three different polygraphs; he passed one and failed another, and the third was inconclusive.

"Doesn't sound real scientific to me," Kinne says.
Holden says he is aware of the Railey polygraphs and says there is a professional explanation for every one of those test results, but he refuses to discuss them in detail. He will only say, "Someone said he passed or failed, but that is not necessarily what the data really show."

Such equivocating is precisely what Kinne sees as the problem with considering polygraph examinations a science. "To me, a layman, science means you get the same results no matter who is giving the test. For example, either you have a 0.10 blood alcohol level or you don't, and it doesn't matter who's administering the test."

What Kinne fears most is the inevitable prospect of "courtroom swearing matches between polygraph examiners" if they were allowed to testify.

"How is that different from disagreements between two psychologists or two handwriting analysts?" Holden retorts. He claims studies show that polygraph exams are far more reliable than eyewitness testimony, which is used all the time--frequently with dire results. "Just ask Ricky Dale Thomas," Holden says. "The state trooper believed in his heart that Thomas was the man he stopped on the highway that night."

It is interesting to note that local prosecutors have no qualms about using the expert testimony of psychiatrists who are quick to label defendants sociopaths and to predict their future dangerousness with a degree of certainty the psychiatric profession says is impossible and unethical.

Lawyers need to learn how to cross-examine polygraph examiners, Holden says. Once they do, they'll be able to expose faulty tests, and juries will be able to determine which expert's work is most believable.

The debate that rages in legal circles is not fueled by questions about the reliability of polygraphs, defense attorneys say, but by prosecutors' and jurists' fear of the impact polygraph testimony may have in the courtroom.

It's one thing if experts disagree about peripheral issues concerning evidence--a defendant's state of mind, handwriting, etc.--but polygraph examiners are dealing with the absolute heart of a case: Did the defendant commit the offense?

"The argument is that the jury is supposed to judge a defendant's believability, and introducing the results of a lie-detector test substitutes a machine for the intuition of the jury," attorney Troy says. "The fear is that they'll be unreasonably swayed by this expert testimony, in part because it will take the burden of deciding guilt or innocence off of them."

Kinne adds: "If these examinations were that good, you could do away with juries, grand juries, DAs, defense attorneys. And that's not going to happen."

Holden and his colleagues would never argue that polygraphs should be used in place of other evidence, only that it should be considered with it. "I think we should be allowed to testify," Holden says. "We meet the standards of scientific reliability. When we're held accountable for our opinions, when we have to produce our data and charts and files and hold them up to scrutiny, it's going to make us better and better."

Can the crucial interview component of the exam ever be controlled enough to minimize examiner error?

"The proof of the test is the outcome," Holden says. "If we do what we're taught properly and have the skill to understand the subtleties of human interaction and communication, I think we can. It's a goal I'll shoot for till the day I die."

There is something decidedly intriguing--and more than a little scary--about the possibility of polygraphs playing a bigger role in deciding guilt and innocence. But Holden is certain that day is not too far in the future.

"I think the science of polygraphing is ready for court and would make a significant contribution in court. We have an enormous contribution to make. Just ask Ricky Dale Thomas and Adonis Baxter.

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