The Face of Lying

UCSF's Paul Ekman, a national expert on the science of lying, helps police (and journalists) determine whether perps (or presidents) are practiced prevaricators

I knew that the last thing the courier wanted to do was re-live the One-Eye Johnson case. So I dissembled, as I sometimes do, in an effort to get at the truth.

Newberry had told me the courier cherished memories of his baseball days, so I said, "I beg your pardon, I may be making a mistake, and I wanted to make sure: Is this the home of the same [name deleted] who played major-league baseball and then spent several years in the Mexican leagues?"

"Yes, it certainly is," the woman exuded. "She, and the courier, are mine," I thought.

I wasn't lying -- liars usually don't. I never directly said that I was mainly interested in the courier's baseball career. I just insinuated as much. I did what untruthful people normally do: I misled; I deceived.

Appeal to their vanity; seduce and betray; the truth is your only master. This is the magazine journalist's credo.

Just the same, I never followed up on the call. The thrill of the chase deadens when your efforts stand to do more harm than good. There comes a time in the interrogation room, we learned during J.J.'s class, that you should just back off.

The day before my deadline for this story, I decided to pay a visit to Lt. Henry Hunter, chief polygraphist of the San Francisco Police Department. I wanted to see a top-notch interviewer in action, and Hunter, as it turns out, is a fan of Ekman. Hunter, a fiftysomething, mildly rotund man, would certainly qualify as a natural interviewer. He radiates the ingratiating excitement of a man who loves what he does. He is inscrutably nonjudgmental during conversation. He is generous with his time, though it's evident he's a busy man.

He studied psychology in college, and went on to take special training in polygraphy. He's been through Flint's classes and studied the work of all the top experts on lying. But he thinks success in interviewing and interrogation is largely a question of natural talent.

"There are guys here who have never been to a school who get guys to confess left and right. They're listeners, and they're accepting. That's the key," he says.

He showed me into the SFPD polygraph room, which is about the size of a walk-in closet and is equipped with two chairs. One has curved armrests, so the necessary sensors can be easily and securely affixed to the subjects' arms. The other is an interviewing chair, which is where the subject sits during the ordinary interviewing and interrogation that precedes and follows the polygraph test. In the observation room next door, Hunter pops a tape into a videocassette recorder, and a TV soon shows a man seated in a chair, legs spread, back slumped, face completely flaccid, with a cigarette drooping listlessly from the left side of his mouth.

"If you ever see a guy smoke in my interrogating room, he's just confessed," Hunter explains.

The man is Andrew Lee, the perpetrator of one of three unrelated S.F. killings that occurred on the day of the Loma Prieta earthquake.

The tape is rewound and the interview starts. Lee appears relaxed, if dejected, as Hunter asks a series of meaningless, bureaucratic-sounding questions -- address, age, full name, nicknames -- designed to get him used to the idea of chatting with Hunter, and give Hunter an idea what Lee is like when he's talking about things that don't bother him.

"I'll sometimes ask them what they like to do in their spare time," says Hunter. "These are rapport-building questions."

The conversation continues, changing in tone slightly as Hunter moves them both into the realm of the killing. A neighborhood bully had died of gunshot wounds outside of Lee's door not long after he had threatened to kill Lee. Hunter explains how he's reading Lee's body language, using the signals he's giving off.

As I watch the two men on the tiny Sony video screen, I am pulled in as if by a jazz performance. Hunter prods gently, yet insistently to extract Lee's version of events. Hunter moves his body closer, his voice and words forming contours of empathy, compassion, and an odd sort of human grace. We fast-forward past the polygraph -- a series of brief questions followed by similarly matter-of-fact answers -- to the final interrogation phase.

It becomes evident during the interrogation that Hunter often uses the technical-looking lie detector more as an interviewing tool than a potential piece of evidence. By telling the suspect he has incriminated himself during the test, Hunter is able to provoke the sort of anxiety that often produces confessions. Hunter leaves the interrogating room on the pretense of examining the polygraph results; the tape skips, then Hunter returns after what Lee's face seems to describe as a painfully long time.

Hunter says it's important to give them time to think.
"Our polygraph results indicate that you are the man who committed the crime," Hunter says on the videotape. Then the inquisitor begins describing his own version of what happened at Lee's doorstep: Lee thought he was shooting the man in self-defense.

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