DETECTIVE Sergeant Doug Williams administered thousands of polygraph tests for the US government as head of Oklahoma’s internal affairs department.
But the veteran came to the disturbing conclusion that “lie detectors” were a dangerous fraud, capable of convicting innocent people of crimes they knew nothing about.
Feeling miserable and guilty, he quit his high-powered job in 1979 and turned his attention to exposing the machines he had used to put people away. The former White House aide has since spent the decades since showing people how to fake their charts, travelling around the country in a converted 1967 Chevy panel truck to spread the word.
Here’s how you do it: Overreact when telling the truth and try to suppress your reactions when lying, so the response looks the same. Williams advises people to think of something calming when lying — a soothing beach, for example — and of a frightening scenario when telling the truth, to increase their blood pressure, sweat and heart rate. Breathing faster and clenching muscles also helps mimic the state of mental stress that comes with lying.
Unsurprisingly, his work has proved unpopular with the authorities and polygraph operators, with Williams accused of helping criminals cheat justice.
But he is unrepentant. “If anyone could be taught how to produce or prevent a reaction on the polygraph at will, wouldn’t that make the whole idea of a ‘lie detector’ a fraud?” he said. “And wouldn’t polygraph operators have to admit their little machine is actually just a sick joke?”
As a former detective, he saw it as his obligation to reveal the truth, sharing his insights in his book, From Cop To Crusader: The story of my fight against the dangerous myth of lie detection. In a trailer for documentary How to sing the Polygraph, he explained: “If you see an oppressive situation and it’s within your power to stop that oppression, you don’t have an option to decide. It is your duty to do so.”
But in a dark twist, Williams has learned that he is not above the law. Last year, he fell victim to a sting himself, after instructing two men who said they were guilty of drug dealing and sexual offences in how to fake a test, in return for thousands of dollars. The men were agents.
In May, Williams pleaded guilty to two counts of mail fraud and three counts of witness tampering, each charge carrying a maximum sentence of 20 years and a $250,000 fine, Bloomberg reported. At almost 70 years old, he is awaiting sentencing.
While polygraph results are not used in Australian courts, commercial companies running tests work closely with private individuals, major corporations and even the authorities. Australian Polygraph Services (APS), founded by two former officers, consults with police on homicide cases, thefts, frauds, sexual assaults, robberies and other criminal cases. In South Australia, the tests are even used to screen potential police candidates.
Polygraph companies like APS claim “it is easy for a qualified examiner to determine when an examinee is attempting to influence the outcome of the exam”, but Williams’s results tell a different story.
Even the machine’s inventor, Dr John Larson, regretted inventing the so-called lie detector. Just before his death in 1965, he called his discovery a “a Frankenstein’s monster, which I have spent over 40 years in combating.”
Williams has now repeatedly shown how to beat a polygraph, fooling three experts on CBS’s 60 Minutes and sharing his knowledge on the Discovery Channel and a series by comedians Penn and Teller. “My technique is the only way for honest, truthful people to protect themselves from being falsely accused of lying,” he says.
His journey may almost be over, but it looks like he’ll stand by his beliefs to the bitter end.
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