AirTalk for March 15, 2013

Can information obtained under “truth serum” be used in court?

First Court Hearing Held For Alleged CO Movie Theater Shooter

RJ Sangosti-Pool/Getty Images

Accused movie theater shooter James Holmes made his first court appearance at the Arapahoe County on July 23, 2012 in Centennial, Colorado. According to police, Holmes killed 12 people and injured 58 others during a shooting rampage at an opening night screening of "The Dark Knight Rises" July 20, in Aurora, Colorado. Should "truth" serum be used to determine if he was clinically insane at the time of the shooting?

The idea of using “truth serum” to get a subject to open up and spill the beans goes back to ancient Rome, when people noticed the tongue-loosening effects of wine. But is information obtained under the influence admissible in court? This week, a judge in Colorado ruled that prosecutors could use a “truth serum” – most likely a drug such as sodium amytal – to extract uninhibited testimony from James Holmes.

Holmes is suspected of the shooting spree in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater last July that left 12 dead and 58 injured; his lawyers are expected to enter a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity.  The “truth serum” option is being considered as a way to determine whether or not Holmes was indeed insane at the time of the shooting.

But experts question both the legal and the medical validity of the technique.  Starting in the 1920’s, barbiturates such as Pentothal and Amytal were sometimes used by police departments and in courtrooms, but by the 1950’s they had been judged more or less invalid by the scientific community. In 1963 the Supreme Court declared drug-induced confessions unconstitutional and therefore inadmissible.

The Holmes case would mirror the 1959 trial of accused killer Raymond Cartier, with a twist: in that case, truth serum was used by the defense to support their claim that Cartier had been insane at the time of his wife’s murder.

Does the use of barbiturates to elicit a courtroom confession violate the defendant’s 5th Amendment right to remain silent? Can anything said under such conditions be considered valid?  Is there any such thing as a reliable “truth serum,” or is this just the stuff of spy novels?


Park Dietz, PhD, forensic psychiatrist and president of Park Dietz & Associates, a forensic consulting firm

Royal F. Oakes, partner, Barger & Wolen, LLP


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