Md. police polygraph some rape victims Test weeds out false accusers, they claim; others call it demeaning and unreliable


Although it was an extraordinary story, it never occurred to her that police would doubt it.

A man with a gun had abducted her from her family's horse farm one spring morning and raped her, the 19-year-old told Howard Countyofficers last year.

But there was no sign of force; no witnesses. Suspicious, police requested that she take a polygraph. She failed.

"We know you're lying," she recalled the polygrapher saying.

Doubt spread through her neighborhood. Relatives didn't believe her. Police demanded the truth.

Still, she stuck to her story.

Vindication came cruelly in November when a second victim reported a nearly identical abduction and rape about 10 miles away. Police charged a computer analyst from Silver Spring in both cases a month later.

"I was completely devastated," the woman said recently of her experience with police. "Because of that machine, I went through months of people not believing me."

"That machine" lies at the heart of a debate between women's advocates and police in Maryland: Should authorities ask rape victims to take polygraphs?

Police give polygraphs to rape victims in 19 of the state's 23 counties and Baltimore City. Some agencies say they do it in a small percentage of cases; others in as many as half.

Several of the nation's leading polygraph researchers oppose the practice because of the crime's psychological effects. Frank Horvath, former president of the American Polygraph Association, says most polygraphers agree that testing victims is less reliable than testing suspects.

Many police polygraphers in Maryland disagree, saying the tests are equally valid. But those same polygraphers have little formal training in evaluating crime victims.

Nor does the state monitor the quality of examiners. Maryland, like the majority of states, has no licensing laws.

Sexual assault center directors call polygraphing rape victims demeaning, discriminatory and unreliable.

It can brand legimate victims liars and scare other reporting rape, says Denese Maker, director of the state Department of Women's Services.

Police and prosecutors see it as a valuable tool for weeding out false accusations and saving innocent men from jail time. Polygraphers cite case after case where women failed tests, then confessed to lying about rapes.

"We sometimes test victims because they do make up stories now and then," said Mark Ward, the state police's polygraph coordinator. "There are a lot of people who would like to have it routinely done."

Polygraphing emerged as an issue in the past year after women in several counties complained to rape counselors. The state has formed a task force, including prosecutors, detectives and crisis center directors, to address the issue.

Women's advocates want legislation banning the practice; police suggest more sensitivity training.

"We think it's a real abuse," said Carol McCulloch, who runs the Howard County Sexual Assault Center. "They think it's a real necessity."

The task force will meet again Sept. 10 in Baltimore.

Small towns and big cities across the nation have grappled with the issue over the past 15 years. Six states have banned or restricted the practice. The process has often been emotional.

"Sometimes it gets ugly," said state police polygrapher Jerry Jankowiak, describing clashes with rape counselors. "It really does."

A tiebreaker

Police in Maryland use polygraphs in rape cases because they are among the hardest crimes to corroborate. Many involve acquaintances with conflicting stories. Often there are no witnesses or signs of force.

If a woman gives an inconsistent account, if a man claims sex was consensual, if an investigator just has a bad feeling, officers sometimes will request a polygraph.

Many agencies say they use the machine as a tiebreaker after exhausting other options. An accuser's failure to pass can sink a shaky case; passing may give it new life. Police believe in the polygraph because they say they have seen it work often.

Phylis Roberts, a police polygrapher on the Eastern Shore, says that half the women she tests come up deceptive. Of those, three-quarters admit that they either lied about the rape or made up some details.

Polygraphers say they have seen women make up rape complaints for all kinds of reasons: an excuse for coming home late, a way to conceal an affair, an effective form of revenge.

Sergeant Jankowiak recalled a sad but illustrative case from the 1980s:

A woman claimed her former boyfriend had raped her with a beer bottle; he said she had consented. Police thought they had an easy conviction until he passed a polygraph test.

The woman then took one, failed and confessed. She said she had agreed to the sex act because she loved him. She cried rape to explain a resulting injury to her mother.

"People do some strange things," Sergeant Jankowiak said. "My job is to find out the truth."

Interpreting charts

Polygraph reliability remains a subject of great debate. While people often call the machine a lie detector, the term is a misnomer.

A polygraph merely measures breathing, heart rate and skin response during a series of questions. Relying on a theory that people show physiological responses when lying, the examiner interprets the charts accordingly.

One research psychologist likens the polygraph to a thermometer. It can tell you whether a person's body temperature is higher than normal, but it can't tell you why.

Disagreement over polygraph accuracy has raged for more than 60 years.

The tests accurately identify people who lie 70 percent to 98 percent of the time, according to field studies. The test has a harder time with those who tell the truth.

Polygraphs incorrectly find truthful people deceptive up to 75 percent of the time, said Leonard Saxe, a psychology professor at the City University of New York who researched the issue for Congress.

Because of these concerns, courts do not generally accept polygraph results as evidence. But police do -- as in the abduction of the 19-year-old Howard County woman last year.

Howard Police Lt. Dan Davis, who oversees rape investigations, refused to discuss the case, citing concerns about pretrial publicity.

This is the woman's account of the investigations:

A week after she reported the rape, police asked her to take a polygraph, saying it would help her case. The polygrapher asked her to vividly recall the rape during the test. Some of the questions, though, were long and detailed.

One asked: "Did you lie when you said that on May 14 a man abducted you from your home and raped you . . . ?"

First she said yes, because she had been raped. Then she said no, when she realized the question was about lying.

"It was so confusing," she said. "I've never been involved with anything like that."

After the test, the polygrapher told her the machine was always right, called her a liar and demanded the truth. Another officer yelled at her -- a claim police have denied.

"Why don't you just admit you're lying?" she quoted the officer as saying. "You're wasting our time."

She isn't sure why she came up deceptive on the test. Perhaps it was confusion or anxiety.

"Of course, if I'm remembering vividly what happened that day, my pulse is going to quicken," the woman said.

Police said they doubted the story, in part, because the crime was so brazen and occurred in an otherwise safe, rural part of the county.

"Things like that just don't happen out there," she quoted Detective Tom Martin as saying.

Detective Martin made her an offer: If she admitted lying, police would pretend to keep investigating, allowing her to save face with her family. The woman refused.

Police searched for a motive for her story. The day of the attack, she had been scheduled to take an exam at Howard Community College.

Police talked to her teacher about the rape claim and the failed polygraph. The woman was furious. Police continued to investigate until they ran out of leads, then put the case on hold.

In November, another woman in Mount Airy reported a strikingly similar attack. Both women, for instance, said they had been forced to wear sunglasses with paper behind the lenses to obscure their vision.

Afterward, police asked the first victim not to speak to the news media, saying it could hurt the prosecution.

"I think they didn't want anybody to know they sat on the case for seven months until it happened to somebody else," she said.

In a later conversation, Detective Martin told her that officers were walking around the police station with egg on their faces.

"That's the closest I ever got to an apology," she said.

The polygrapher who administered the test still maintains it worked. He believes that the woman was assaulted but embellished the story, according to Lieutenant Davis.

"We probably never will know for sure," Lieutenant Davis said.


Questions of accuracy

Many departments, including those in Howard County and Baltimore City, say they polygraph rape victims in only a small percentage of cases. Others do it more often.

Investigative supervisor Lt. Dallas Pope said state police along the Eastern Shore test 10 percent to 25 percent of the women who report rape. Cpl. John Horne said the St. Mary's County Sheriff's Department tests between 40 percent and 50 percent.

Six police polygraphers interviewed for this article said they thought that the tests are equally accurate with criminal suspects and victims.

But national researchers and psychologists disagree.

In 1985, the American Psychological Association said evidence of accuracy with crime victims was "particularly poor."

"There is the possibility of great damage to innocent persons," the association said. Even some polygraph supporters think that testing rape victims is risky.

"I don't think it should be done," said Stanley Abrams, a psychologist,researcher and polygrapher in Portland, Ore. "With the victim, it's an extremely emotional area [and] can be a very difficult test to evaluate."

The Maryland Institute of Criminal Justice in Millersville is the state's only accredited polygraphing school. It has trained police polygraphers from the Appalachian mountains to the Eastern Shore, including five of those interviewed for this article. The seven-week, 300-hour course is well-respected nationally and includes courses in psychology, physiology and law.

It addresses victims only in passing.

"We really don't get into that," said director Billy Thompson. "We may go through one example of a rape or robbery victim."

Nobody knows how many rape victims take polygraphs each year in Maryland or to what extent, if any, they are singled out. Some departments simply don't keep records.

Investigators say they polygraph victims of other crimes just as often. They cite burglary and car theft cases where they suspect insurance scams.

But officers in Howard and St. Mary's counties as well as the state police say that they have polygraphed victims in rape cases more often than others. Lieutenant Davis estimated that at least three of the five victims tested by Howard County police in 1992 came from rape cases.

Critics claim the practice discriminates against women, who constitute the vast majority of rape victims. The investigation is already painful enough, says Debbie Matthews, assistant director of the sexual assault center in Salisbury.

Typically, victims must submit to an invasive physical exam and then tell their story to a police officer, sometimes a man. Some see the polygraph as another daunting hurdle.

"I was scared to death," said a Montgomery County woman who refused to take a polygraph because she feared an inaccurate reading. "I was afraid I would be smeared."

Banned in some states

Some police officers say stories such as the one in Howard County are rare and do not justify banning the use of polygraphs with rape victims. But others seem to do fine without the machine. Police in Carroll and Prince George's counties say they don't use them because of the anguish and unreliability.

"It's a short cut," says Kathi Hill, chief prosecutor of Carroll County's child abuse and sexual assault unit. A smart investigator can figure out if a victim is lying through good questions and hard work, she says.

At least six states -- California, Michigan, New York, Connecticut, Oregon and Illinois -- have banned or restricted police from asking rape victims to take polygraphs. Prosecutors in other states, including Washington and Wyoming, dropped the practice after public outcry.

The Yakima County prosecutor's office in Washington state came under attack in the 1970s for polygraphing one of every two victims. Prosecutor Jeff Sullivan gave it up.

"Over the years, I've become more cynical about the value of the polygraph," he said. "If it's not going to be accurate, why use it?"

The Howard County woman is doing better these days. Her relatives have apologized for not believing her. She works as a cashier and continues to take courses at the community college.

She is still angry with Howard police, but says that if it ever happened again, she would still report the crime. She feels badly for the second victim, but thankful that the woman reported the rape and restored her reputation.

Otherwise, she said, "I'd have carried that the rest of my life."


Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad