Tuesday, March 09, 2004

My Brain is Running Scared

I’m not easily horrified but what I saw on TV this morning came pretty close to doing it.

I was watching “Good Morning America” this morning…after I got back from the gym. Man, I like saying that… “after I got back from the gym.” But it’s costing a lot of money, so, the way I see it, I have to mention it about every thirty seconds.

In any case, as I was saying, GMA ran a story on a new “lie detector” called a “brain fingerprint test” today. I am troubled.

Here’s a part of the article from ABCnews.com:

March 9 — Now it may be impossible for even the best liars to conceal their crimes.

The latest technology in forensic science uses details known only to investigators and the criminal to prove a suspect's guilt or innocence.

Traditional lie detectors rely on reading emotional reactions such as sweating or heart rate as a suspect is asked questions. The problem is that well-practiced liars can control these reactions before the polygraph has a chance to detect them.

During the test, the suspect wears a headband equipped with sensors to measure activity in response to recognition of a word or image relating to the crime in question. When the brain recognizes a word or picture, it releases an involuntary wave called a P 300 mermer, explains Farwell. That's used to determine whether suspects were ever at the scene of the crime.

The article goes on to explain that one suspect has already confessed after failing the test and yet another was exonerated after passing it.

Here’s what frightens me – for one, the article goes on to talk about how some in the forensic community say that it may not be all that reliable. This is something that wasn’t mentioned on the TV program.

But even more troubling than that is how they throw around terms like guilt and innocence so totally and recklessly.

The article makes mention of “liars” who can beat the “old” test and therefore escape punishment. But let me tell you, “lie detector” tests are a common thing in the justice system. And it’s still seen as an ultimate test of guilt by a lot of people. However, it’s never seen as an ultimate test of innocence. After all, “liars” can beat the system, right? They do it every day, right? Probably.

But, as we all know, with anything, this has to be a two way street. It only makes sense. If people can “beat the system” so easily then there must be some fatal flaw in the sureness of the test itself. This means that there has to be people who are convicted and sent away, in part because of failing the test - who are innocent. This is something that you never hear about. It’s just not something that we care to hear about. We want our criminals to be convicted and we don’t want to believe that the system that we rely on so much for justice can possibly persecute innocent people. It undermines our sense of security.

By now, we all know that there are innocent people on death row and in prisons. Mathematically, there just has to be. The system knows it too. Every year there are a couple of people who, because of new forensic evidence, are released after years of maintaining their innocence.

This brings me back to my friend from the article; the one who was exonerated. His name is Terry Harrington by the way. Maybe he never took the traditional “lie detector” test, but I’d be willing to bet that he did, he was a murder suspect. Yet, he’s been in jail since 1978. Is he truly innocent? Only he really knows.

My point is that new “tests” come out every couple of years or so and all of them claim to prove the guilt or innocence of criminal suspects by scientifically measuring physiological responses. But, when you’re dealing with the human brain, I’m not sure that science could possibly have the key to truth. I mean, my brain has lived in this apartment for three years now and it still can’t tell me where the friggin’ light switch is in the bathroom when it’s dark in there.

And I went to the gym this morning.

Fun Fact: If feeling fat and sweaty were a career, I would be a successful man.

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