When you think of “hypnosis” it’s probably unlikely you’d picture a Texas law enforcement officer. After all, Texas cops are known for their no nonsense approach to fighting crime. But actually, Texas has one of the most active forensic hypnosis training systems in the nation. That’s despite the fact that nearly half of all states consider it a junk science and have banned or restricted its use.
But how did forensic hypnosis come to Texas? It came from California via one of the most astounding crimes in the last half century. In 1974, in Chowchilla California kidnappers abducted a yellow school bus with 26 children and the driver. [Read more on Texas Public Radio]
To prevent wrongful convictions, only the first identification of a suspect should be considered
We all know the scene from countless courtroom dramas: A witness points at the defendant and confidently declares to judge and jury: “That’s the one, that’s who did it!” But is it? Perhaps. If that same witness was also confident the very first time their memory was tested – write a team of psychological scientists and criminologists led by memory expert John Wixted of the University of California San Diego. Otherwise, there’s too high a chance that a contaminated memory will convict an innocent person. [Read more on UC San Diego Press Release]
When an eyewitness stands up in court and identifies the person they say committed a crime, the impact can be powerful and effective. This dramatic testimony can be sincere and honest. It can also be wrong and tragically lead to wrongful convictions, lifelong incarcerations, and even the death penalty. But how can this happen? The witness is telling the court what they truly believe and remember. And therein lies the problem: memory, the often fuzzy and malleable recollections of events in the past.
In the latest edition of Psychological Science in the Public Interest, researchers look at the problems with eyewitness misidentifications in the courtroom and explain why prosecutors and law enforcement should test a witness’s memory of a suspect only once. Joining us is John Wixted, a researcher at the University of California at San Diego and first author on this article.
Prosecutors who have championed criminal justice reforms are still seeking death sentences, opposing appeals, and, in some cases, have even petitioned for execution dates.
On the morning of Jan. 29, 1998, Jill Barganier saw two men outside the home of her neighbor, Elizabeth Black, in Farmers Branch, Texas, according to a statement she later gave police. A short time later, Black’s husband arrived home, and found his wife and dog, both fatally shot.
Barganier told police the men she saw were white, with shoulder-length hair. She identified the driver from photo arrays as Richard Childs. Less than a week after the crime, police administered a hypnosis session for Barganier at her request, according to her trial testimony. The session was conducted by Officer Roen Serna, who had never hypnotized anyone before, according to Flores’s court filings. The goal, Barganier would later testify, was to help her relax so she could create a “good composite” of the passenger.
Afterwards, she was shown an array of six photos, including one of a man named Charles Flores, an associate of Childs’s. At the time, Flores had short, shaved hair, as depicted in his mug shot. She didn’t choose anyone, according to court filings. [Read More in The Appel]
By John Wixted and Patricia A. Riley 1:30 AM on Sep 19, 2020 CDT
Eyewitness testimony is reliable, but only under specific circumstances
Charles Don Flores is on death row in Texas, where he was convicted as an accomplice to a murder committed in 1998. If the U.S. Supreme Court does not intervene, his execution date may soon be set. Why are we telling you this? Because Flores was convicted not on the basis of any physical evidence tying him to the crime but largely on the confident testimony of a single eyewitness.
“Aha,” you may now be thinking, “this is an injustice because eyewitness memory is unreliable.” Well, no, not quite. What researchers and prosecutors like us have learned since Flores filed his final state appeal in 2016 (which was recently denied), is that eyewitness memory is, in fact, highly reliable — if the identification is made with high confidence the first time the suspect is presented to the witness. [Read More in Dallas News]
By John Wixted and Patricia A. Riley 1:30 AM on Sep 19, 2020 CDT
The Flores case is an example of using “junk” science for a murder conviction.
Since the inception of criminal investigations, the techniques and procedures used in these inquests have been plagued by pseudoscientific claims.
From spectral evidence allowed at the Salem witch trials and phrenologists interpreting bumps on the skulls of criminals, to modern-day polygraphs to detect lying and hypnosis to unlock repressed or forgotten memories, the justice system, and ultimately people’s lives, have too often been dictated by “junk” science. [Read more in Dallas News]
Texas law enforcement use hypnosis to investigate dozens of crimes a year. The outcome of a Dallas case could change this controversial practice — and determine the fate of a man on death row.
The witness remembered the Volkswagen Beetle, its psychedelic flames visible in the twilight, and the white man with long hair who parked the garish thing on her quiet street that January morning in 1998.
But, when Farmers Branch police showed her a lineup, she couldn’t pick out the passenger.
She wanted to remember what he looked like to help catch her neighbor’s killers, the men who slithered under the garage door, shot the 64-year-old grandmother dead and ransacked her home. So a local policeman did something he’d never done before and would never do again.
For decades, US law enforcement has used ‘forensic hypnosis’ to help solve crimes – yet despite growing evidence that it is junk science, this method is still being used to send people to death row. By Ariel Ramchandani
In January 2016, Charles Flores, a Texas prisoner, was moved to death watch, where inmates awaiting execution spend their final months. Seventeen years earlier, Flores had been convicted of murdering a woman in a Dallas suburb in the course of a robbery, a crime he says he did not commit. All of his appeals had been denied and his lethal injection was scheduled for 2 June.
Flores’s new neighbour on death watch, who was due to die in two weeks, gave him the name of his attorney, Gregory Gardner. Gardner specialised in fighting capital punishment convictions and had helped this man take his case to the US supreme court. Flores wrote to Gardner, telling him about the troubling course his trial had taken. No physical evidence had been presented to tie him to the murder, his defence had failed him in multiple ways and, perhaps most troublingly, the only eye witness who claimed to have seen him at the scene of the crime had been hypnotised by police during questioning. [Read more on The Guardian]
Published in “The Dallas Morning News” (US) on May 15, 2018
Is hypnosis “junk science” that’s sent innocent men to their deaths, or a powerful investigative tool? One of the state’s most controversial investigative tools is about to be tested.
AUSTIN — For many people, the word “hypnosis” evokes images of swinging pocket watches, swirling vortexes and impressionable subjects mesmerized by movie villains.
They think of Get Out, The Manchurian Candidate, even Office Space.
Texas has the most robust forensic hypnosis program in the country, training police officers across the state to sharpen or recall crime witnesses’ lost memories. As more and more states ban the practice, law enforcement here turns to it at least a dozen times a year.
Now, two Dallas-area death row inmates are arguing it’s time to stop. Their executions have been delayed as they fight their convictions, which they claim were based on “junk science.”
“Once you have, at a minimum, serious questions that a technique sent a man to death row, you need to change the way you use that technique,” Gregory Gardner, an attorney who has defended both men, told The Dallas Morning News. Hypnosis “does so much more harm to innocent people than getting guilty people behind bars.”
Is forensic hypnosis quackery that’s sent innocent men to their deaths, or a powerful law enforcement technique that can crack open cold cases? One of the state’s most controversial investigative tools is about to be tested. [Read more on “The Dallas Morning News”]