Md. police polygraph some rape victims Test weeds out false accusers, they claim

others call it demeaning and unreliable

August 29, 1993|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Staff Writer

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.

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