U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff Derides Polygraphy as “Junk Science”

Kat Richardson reports for The Dartmouth on Judge Jed S. Rakoff’s remarks at his recent William H. Timber ‘37 Lecture, which was co-sponsored by the Dartmouth Legal Studies faculty and the Dartmouth Lawyers Association. Excerpt:

Science and the law are “uncomfortable” but inevitable “bedfellows,” Jed Rakoff, a U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of New York, said in a lecture Wednesday in the Rockefeller Center. The talk addressed the long-term love-hate relationship between the two fields.

“The law is very messy, and it is attracted to science in search of certainty,” Rakoff said.

The hate part of the relationship becomes relevant when pseudoscience, or “junk science” as Rakoff termed it, interferes with the court system. Rakoff gave many examples of these “junk sciences,” including the use of polygraphs and fingerprinting. These procedures are often inconclusive, he said in justifying his “junk” label.

“[The use of a polygraph] is not remotely scientific and, when it creeps into the courtroom, can create great mischief,” he said.

Rakoff gave an example of a case in which an Egyptian immigrant living in a hotel across from the World Trade Center towers had been wrongfully accused of being involved in acts of terrorism based on his appearance and almost convicted because of polygraph results. Luckily, the man was exonerated in light of new evidence.

Rakoff warned that law and science are now yoked together in an unprecedented way because society believes that science and certainty are synonymous. Judges must work to determine whether the science is credible, replicable and generally accepted by experts in the field, he stressed. If so, then evidence pertaining to the field is admissible in a trial. Judges are the best suited to bear this responsibility, according to Rakoff.

Regarding the case of Abdallah Higazy, the Egyptian referred to in the article (who was an exchange student, not an immigrant), and from whom an FBI polygraph examiner coerced a false confession, see the discussion thread, FBI Polygrapher Michael Templeton Named in Lawsuit (Higazy v. Templeton) on the AntiPolygraph.org message board.

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