Truth serum (Forensic Science)
The term “truth serum” was introduced into forensic language during the 1920’s by Dr. Robert House of Ferris, Texas. When House administered scopolamine to induce what was called “twilight sleep” to ease the difficulties of childbirth, he noticed that the drug made patients talkative and that they often revealed information that they otherwise would not have disclosed.
In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Townsend v. Sain that information acquired in interrogation after the use of a “truth serum” is not admissible in court in criminal cases. Charles Townsend, a heroin addict suspected of murder, suffered severe withdrawal pains while being interrogated by law-enforcement investigators. After a police doctor injected Townsend with scopolamine and phenobarbital, allegedly to treat the effects of the opiate withdrawal, Townsend confessed to the murder. The Court declared that, because of the use of “truth serum,” Townsend’s confession failed to meet the constitutional requirement that it be voluntary.
Two developments that followed the terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, focused renewed attention on the use of truth serum in the United States. The first was a U.S. Supreme Court opinion that stated that the fight against terrorism might require “heightened deference to the judgment of the political branches with respect to matters of national security”...
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Further Reading (Forensic Science)
Geis, Gilbert. “In Scopolamine Veritas: The Early History of Drug-Inducted Statements.” Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science 50 (November/December, 1959): 347-357.
Horsley, J. Stephen. Narco-analysis: A New Technique in Short-Cut Psychotherapy. London: Oxford University Press, 1948.
Moenssens, Andre A. “Narcoanalysis in Law Enforcement.” Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science 52 (November/December, 1961): 453-458.
Winter, Alison. “The Chemistry of Truth and the Literature of Dystopia.” In Literature, Science, Psychoanalysis, 1830-1970: Essays in Honour of Gillian Beer, edited by Helen Small and Trudi Tate. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
_______. “The Making of ’Truth Serum.’” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 79, no. 4 (2005): 500-533.
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Truth Serum (World of Forensic Science)
Part of a forensic investigation can involve interviewing or even interrogating someone to determine the course of events. An individual may not always be forthcoming with information. In such cases, one option can be to solicit information chemically.
Truth serum is a term given to a number of different sedative or hypnotic drugs that are used to induce a person to tell the truth. Truth serums are a misnomer. While they do cause a person to become uninhibited and talkative, they do not guarantee the veracity of the subject. Although inhibitions are generally reduced, persons under the influence of truth serums are still able to lie and even tend to fantasize. Courts have ruled that information obtained from narcoanalysis is inadmissible.
As well, the drugs are not truly serums. Nonetheless, once used, the term became ingrained.
In 1943 J. Stephen Horsley published a book in which he described a novel psychotherapeutic method, which he coined narcoanalysis. By chance, he observed that people who were under the influence of narcotics were uninhibited, talkative, and answered all questions that were asked of them. A narcotic is a drug that dulls the senses, relieves pain, and induces sleep. Persons who were under the influence of narcotics entered a hypnotic-like state and spoke freely about anxieties or painful memories. Once the drug effect had worn off, the person had no recollection of what he or she said. Narcoanalysis has since been used to assist in the diagnosis of several different psychiatric conditions.
Narcoanalysis is not used in the United States as an interrogation method. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other federal law enforcement agencies object to the use of truth drugs, preferring instead to use psychological methods to extract information from suspects or prisoners. The United Nations considers the use of truth drugs to be physical abuse and, therefore, a form of torture.
The issue was revisited in 2002, when some authorities, including former Central Intelligence Agency and FBI chief William Webster, frustrated by the lack of forthcoming information from suspected al Qaeda and Taliban members held at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, advocated administering narcoanalysis drugs to uncooperative captives. United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld asserted that narcoanalysis was not used by United States military and intelligence personnel, but suggested that other countries have made use of the technique in the interrogation of suspected terrorists.
Two of the most commonly used truth serums are members of the barbiturate drug class. Barbiturates are sedatives and hypnotics that are created from barbituric acid. They are divided into classes according to the duration of sedation: ultrashort, short, intermediate, and long. Ultrashort-acting barbiturates are used as anesthetics whereas long-acting ones are used to treat convulsions (anticonvulsive). Barbiturates are controlled substances due to their high potential for abuse and for addictive behavior.
Sodium pentothal (pentothal sodium, thiopental, thiopentone) is an ultrashort-acting barbiturate, meaning that sedation only lasts for a few minutes. Sodium pentothal slows down the heart rate, lowers blood pressure, and slows down (depresses) the brain and spinal cord (central nervous system) activity. Sedation occurs in less than one minute after injection. It is used as a general anesthetic for procedures of short duration, for induction of anesthesia given before other anesthetic drugs, as a supplement to regional anesthesia (such as a spinal block), as an anticonvulsive, and for narcoanalysis.
Sodium amytal (amobarbital, amylobarbitone, Amytal) is an intermediate-acting barbiturate. Sedation occurs in one hour or longer and lasts for 10 to 12 hours. Sodium amytal depresses the central nervous system. It is used as a sedative, hypnotic, and anticonvulsive and for narcoanalysis. When sodium amytal is used for narcoanalysis it may be called an "Amytal interview."
Scopolamine (hyoscine) is an anticholinergic alkaloid drug that is obtained from certain plants. Anticholinergic drugs block the impulses that pass through certain nerves. Scopolamine affects the autonomic nervous system and is used as a sedative, to prevent motion sickness, to treat eye lens muscle paralysis (cycloplegic), and to dilate the pupil (mydriatic).
SEE ALSO Nervous system overview; Polygraphs; Psychotropic drugs.