Remember Aurora, Colorado theater shooter James Holmes? He went to a screening of the latest Batman movie and shot (or otherwise wounded) 70 people, 12 of which died. He had dyed his hair red/orange and stated that he was “the Joker” (a character from the Batman series). Not surprisingly, his lawyers say he is mentally ill.

In a really stupid turn of events, a Colorado judge has ruled that Holmes could be subjected to a “truth serum” if he pleads not guilty by reason of insanity (the term he used was “narcoanalytic interview,” but that’s just a fancy term for a drug that is given so the interview subject’s inhibitions will be lowered, making them more likely to tell the truth). From the ABC news coverage:

“The last time I had read that term being used as if the practice had any validity was decades ago,” said Alison Winter, a professor of history of science and medicine at the University of Chicago who has done extensive research on “truth serum.”

The idea behind this nearly century old tool is not that it forces people to tell the truth, but that it lowers their inhibitions and presumably makes them more inclined to talk.

Experts take issue with the technique, but acknowledge the “seductive” nature of the idea behind it.

And more from the same article:

“It’s an extraordinarily unusual procedure to use,” Dr. Steven Hoge, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University in New York, told “The fact that they’ve linked it to the use of polygraph makes me concerned that they do believe that it is indeed a ‘truth serum’ and there’s no evidence to support that.”

Hoge said that are no controlled studies that demonstrate that information obtained under narcoanalysis is reliable.

“The idea that sodium amytal is a truth serum is not correct,” he said. “It’s an invalid belief. It is unproven in its ability to produce reliable information and it’s not a standard procedure used by forensic psychiatrists in the assessment of the insanity defense, nor is polygraph.”

That last sentence, to me, is the real point. Not only is truth serum science fiction, not reality, there are standard procedures used by forensic psychiatrists (you know, actual professionals) to assess mental illness generally, and legal insanity specifically, in the context of the criminal justice system.

In my humble opinion, this is just plain dumb. It’s another example of some people’s (in this instance, the presiding judge’s) gut-level reaction against the insanity defense. If you think the criminal justice system’s primary role is to dole out retribution, then you don’t care if a person suffers from mental illness, was legally insane at the time, or has other mitigating factors at play… You want them to “pay for their crimes.” To this type of person, the insanity defense especially, but also mental illness, childhood abuse/neglect, et cetera, is just an excuse and isn’t to be tolerated. These people have no place in the jury trial system, not to mention as presiding judge.

View All Blogs