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Wednesday, August 2, 2023

The Frye Case in the History of the Polygraph

     The prototype of the modern polygraph instrument was invented in 1921 by a graduate physiology student at the University of California at Berkeley named John Larson. While attending the university Larson worked as a "college cop" at the Berkeley Police Department under the progressive police chief August Vollmer. It was Vollmer who asked Larson to invent a device that could determine if a criminal suspect was telling the truth or lying. In researching the work of others who had tried to find a method of scientific lie detection, Larson read an article by a lawyer named William Marston who believed that when people lie they come under stress which raises their blood pressure. (Marston, oddly enough, was also the creator of the comic superhero Wonder Woman.)

     Polygraph test results, because of questions of scientific reliability, have never been admitted in a criminal court as proof of a defendant's guilt. Ironically, the case most frequently cited as precedent for polygraph exclusion, is United States v. Frye, a federal appeals court decision that arose out of a murder case that had involved William Marston's lie detection methodology. At the time, John Larson's polygraph, a significantly more sophisticated instrument, had not been fully developed.

The Frye Case

     On November 25, 1920, almost a year after John Larson had joined the Berkeley Police Department, and a few months before he had read William Marston's article on blood pressure and scientific lie detection, a black man named James Frye shot and killed a wealthy physician, also black, in Washington, D.C. Mr. Frye had murdered Dr. Robert W. Brown in his office at 8:45 in the evening. Another physician witnessed the shooting and ran after Frye as he fled the building. The chase came to an abrupt end when Frye took a shot at his pursuer. The eyewitness did not know James Frye, so all the police had to go on was a general description of the killer.

     On August 21, 1921, seven months after the murder, police officers arrested Frye on a robbery case, and while being grilled on that matter he confessed to killing Dr. Brown. Over the years, the facts of this case have become more myth than reality. Dr. James E. Starrs, a forensic science scholar and professor of law at George Washington University, set the record straight in 1981. In a paper Dr. Starrs presented at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences that year, Dr. Starrs presented the Frye case myth as follows: James Frye admitted to killing Dr. Brown because a friend told him that if he did so he would receive part of the reward money that had been put up by the victim's family. When Frye realized that as the killer he was not eligible for the reward he took back his confession. It was at this point Frye's attorney hired William Marston to test his client's honesty.

     According to the Frye case myth, Marston's lie detection test confirmed that the defendant was telling the truth when he denied committing the murder. But because the trial judge refused to allow Marston to take the stand on the defendant's behalf, the jury found Frye guilty. The judge sentenced him to life in prison. According to this version of the case, the friend who had talked Frye into confessing, admitted killing the doctor. As a result, after serving three years in prison, Frye walked free.

     The above version of the Frye case makes a good story and sheds favorable light on scientific lie detection. If the trial judge had been more open minded, an innocent man would not have been convicted. According to Professor Starrs, however, the above account of the Frye case was grossly inaccurate. In reality, the defendant had withdrawn his confession on the advice of his attorney, Richard V. Mattingly. By the time the case went to trial, Frye had concocted an alibi. He claimed that at the time of the murder he had been visiting a woman named Essie Watson.

     In his 1938 book, The Lie Detector Test, William Marston wrote that he had been called into the case by Mattingly a few weeks before the trial because the defense attorney couldn't find any witnesses to support his client's alibi. Marston, on June 10, 1922, gave Frye his systolic blood pressure test, a primitive method that involved nothing more than a standard blood pressure cuff and a stethoscope. After each question put to Frye, Marston simply took his blood pressure. Compared to John Larson's polygraph, Marston's technique was crude, and unreliable. Larson was a scientist, Marston was an attorney.

     After Marston administered his lie detection exam, he announced that James Frye had told the truth when he denied committing the murder. In his book, he wrote, "No one could have been more surprised than myself to find that Frye's final story of innocence was entirely truthful! His confession to the Brown murder was a lie from start to finish."

     James Frye went on trial for the murder of Dr. Brown on July 17, 1922 in Washington, D.C. before Judge William McCoy. Defense attorney Mattingly's case was based entirely on William Marston's lie detection results. When he tried to put Marston on the stand as an expert lie detection witness, the prosecutor objected on the grounds that scientific lie detection was not reliable. The judge agreed. Without the lie detection evidence, Mattingly had no choice but to put his client on the stand. This did not turn out well for the defense.

     The jury, after deliberating three hours, found the defendant guilty of second-degree murder, a verdict that spared Frye the death sentence. Having been in court during the argument over the reliability of Marston's lie detection technique, the jurors decided not to send Frye to his death. As Marston put it in his book, "As far as James Frye was concerned, the [lie detection] test undoubtedly saved his life. No jury could help being influenced by the knowledge that Frye's story had been proved truthful by the lie detector."

     Richard Mattingly appealed Fry's conviction on the grounds Judge McCoy had erred in excluding William Marston's lie detection test results. In 1923, the circuit court of appeals in the District of Columbia upheld Judge McCoy's exclusion. Judge Van Orsdel wrote the appellate court's opinion that established the test used today for the admission of expert testimony based upon new scientific principles. Judge Van Orsdel wrote: "Just when a scientific principle or discovery crosses the line between the experimental and demonstrative stages is difficult to define. Somewhere in this twilight zone the evidential force of the principle must be recognized, and while courts will go a long way in admitting expert testimony deduced from a well recognized scientific principle or discovery, the thing from which the deduction is made must be sufficiently established to have general acceptance in the particular field in which it belongs."

     Although Judge Van Orsdel set the general standard for the admission of new scientific evidence, his opinion didn't indicate exactly what he objected to in Marston's lie detection procedure. It was not clear whether the judge questioned the underlying principle that lying causes measurable changes in a person's blood pressure, or if he objected to Marston's systolic blood pressure test as a method of gathering and recording this data for interpretation. The judge may have rejected both the scientific principle behind Marston's test, and the technique itself.

     If the Frye court's rejection primarily involved the lie detection technique rather than the scientific principle behind it, then it was Marston's systolic blood pressure evidence, not John Larson's polygraph that was being ruled inadmissible in the Frye case. If this were true, then it could be argued that the Frye decision has been inappropriately cited all of these years as precedent for the court exclusion of polygraph evidence.

     As for James Frye, he was paroled from the District of Columbia Prison at Lorton, Virginia on June 17, 1939. He had served 18 years behind bars, and died in 1953 at age 58. If it hadn't been for William Marston's unsophisticated and unreliable lie detection test, he may have died a lot sooner.    

1 comment:

  1. “and died in 1953 at age 58. If it hadn't been for William Marston's unsophisticated and unreliable lie detection test, he may have died a lot sooner.”
    How did the polygraph delay Frye’s death? It’s unclear.