Buting ,Williams & Stilling ,S.C. | A Criminal Defense Law Firm

Call Today for a FREE Consultation


Lie-detector tests are unscientific, produce faulty evidence

by | Aug 19, 2019 | Criminal Defense

Polygraph tests, often called “lie-detector tests,” are not admissible as evidence in the courts. This is because they have never been shown to produce reliable proof of whether the subject is lying.

Nevertheless, they continue to be popular as an employment screening tool and, sometimes, as a way to assess suspects and witnesses in criminal investigations. Many probation agents are also allowed to employ polygraphs to assess whether their clients are being truthful with them, though because they are not admissible in court a failed test cannot (alone) result in probation revocation. 

It would be immensely convenient if lie-detectors worked. They seem to promise a fair, objective way of determining whether someone is telling the truth. They were first developed by psychologists at the beginning of the 20th century, then refined by law enforcement and private businesses in the 1920s.

The idea is that, when people lie, their bodies give off tell-tale signs in response to the emotional stress of doing so. The polygraph measures changes in the depth of the subject’s breathing, their blood pressure and the electrical conductivity of their skin.

Unfortunately, there are several underlying assumptions that proved to be false. For one, it’s not clear that everyone has a measurable emotional response when they lie. Among those who do, those responses are not uniform. And, it is thought that some people can beat the test by taking countermeasures such as controlling their breathing.

Indeed, when scientists attempted to verify the validity of polygraphy in large-scale, controlled studies, they found large numbers of false positives. That is, many people were rated as lying when they were not.

Why are polygraphs still used if they’re invalid?

Recently, the Smithsonian magazine looked into the question of why employers — especially federal security agencies — still screen employees using polygraphs. The writer concluded that the test results are often useful for reasons of expediency. For example, a negative performance on a lie detector could give cover for firing an unwanted employee.

The CIA, for example, has been using polygraphs for employment purposes since the agency was founded in 1947. Even when Congress began investigating the validity of lie-detectors in the 1960s, the CIA vehemently defended their use.

Yet an internal CIA history from 1973 concluded that, “the precise yardstick for the measuring of security reliability of an individual continued to be elusive.” In other words, the CIA couldn’t define exactly what it considered a passing score on the test.

Polygraphs fell out of favor after it was shown that Aldrich Ames, a now-convicted Soviet spy, passed two polygraph tests despite having passed on U.S. secrets. However, they continue to be revived by people hoping they can provide a fair, technological way to sort out truth from lies.

Practice Areas

“I just want to say thank you for the outstanding work you have done for him and let you know how much we appreciate the time and attention you gave to his case. We are obviously overjoyed by today’s dismissal!” (Child pornography case dismissed after motion to suppress was granted)”

“After having had time to exhale, we thank each one of you and all the others who contributed to the exemplary Supreme Court presentation. We are proud of your efforts on our behalf and, equally important, on behalf of the many present and future defendants statewide.” (Client’s comment after Supreme Court oral argument)

“Thank you. Thank you. I am so pleased to hear that we won. It doesn’t seem that it was even a close call. I appreciate your efforts.” (Oconto County defendant after Buting, Williams & Stilling got his prison sentence overturned in the court of appeals) ”

“Your time and advice was appreciated more than words can express at a time when we really needed someone to guide us.” (Client)

“The outcome was amazing, one unavailable even under identical circumstances in probably 98 percent of federal courtrooms around the country. Separate and apart from the outcome, though, I am supremely impressed by your efforts on your client’s behalf. Your comments in support of the requested sentence were perfect in tone and, having now reviewed the extensive sentencing memorandum you filed, your work in that regard was exemplary as well. Your client was certainly fortunate to have you as his attorney.” (Local federal court attorney present at a sentencing)

“I can’t thank you enough, not only for all of the tireless work that you and your staff put into my case, but for telling me what I needed to hear, at a time when I absolutely had to hear it. I consider myself blessed for everything turning out the way it did, especially since I blindly picked you out of a phone book! You helped me, my family and friends in many more ways than the money ever could.” (Child pornography client)

“I think you will find that in any circles where Kathy’s name is raised, people will always respond positively and identify her as an extremely hardworking, knowledgeable and ethical lawyer who is timely and effective with any endeavor she takes on. These circles would include colleagues, friends, prosecutors, judges, professors and others who have crossed paths with Kathy. They would also include the many lawyers like me who have referred numerous cases to Kathy, invariably with positive feedback from the clients regarding her knowledge of their case, empathy, professionalism and fair-mindedness in addressing their concerns.” (Fellow attorney)

“Thank you for giving [our son] back to us. Wonderful work!” (Family of client accused of armed robbery after charges were dismissed)

“Yes, His perfect time and perfect place, you were a part of this plan. I almost didn’t hire you, but I took a step of faith trusting Him and look what happened? Praise God. Our Lord put you in your vocation for a reason, continue to help those He brings your way. May He bless you in ALL you do!” (Client who was wrongfully convicted of sexual assault in a northwestern Wisconsin county. He was released from prison after attorneys got his conviction reversed.)

“I really cannot thank you enough for your past help. You really know your stuff. It is actually funny when I think about my other past attorney’s knowledge and then when I talk with you. It’s like night and day. You’re like a walking book of knowledge with a purpose-driven life. Thanks.” (Brown County client of attorney Buting)

“A year later and I still believe your defense is the single best example of lawyering I have ever seen.” (Television reporter commenting on attorney Buting’s defense of Steven Avery)

“You have a certain brilliance that makes me sure that when you talk, it is good information and I am in good hands. You tell it to me like it is even when the things you say are not always the things that I would like to hear. You keep it REAL!!!” (Brown County client)

“Thank you, thank you, thank you! I feel like this was one of the biggest blessings that happened in my life. I put this along with my children being born healthy and when I survived that horrific shooting. I appreciate everything you have done for me. I couldn’t ask for better lawyers. I want to say thank you to everybody at your firm. I owe you more than the fee you so rightfully deserve. … You gave me back hope. Thank you, man! Out of my 36 years … I have never seen such kindness before. I don’t know what I did to deserve this; I’m very thankful nonetheless. Thank you for giving me hope again. Thank you for your generosity. There are still some really good people around.” (Federal criminal appeal client)

“There is no other attorney I’ve ever even heard of I’d rather have as chief counsel and leader of my defense/appeals than Jerome Buting. You’re the best. Period.” (Dane County client)

“Your advice and counsel were greatly appreciated. We appreciate you taking the time on your Sunday and evenings to help us. We are SO happy about the results! Thanks again.” (Waukesha County client)

“Thank you again … for everything. Five and one-half years of commitment, so many ups and downs and an outcome like that. You did a GREAT job.” (Waukesha County felony drug offense client)