It’s his job to distinguish fact from fiction.
Forget the darting eyes or nervous twitch — Tony Wheaton has another way to determine when a suspect is lying. He straps them to a machine and charts each time their heart skips a beat.
After more than 300 hours of classroom instruction and on-the-job training with the New York-based National Training Center of Polygraph Science, the Ross County Sheriff’s detective is now the only member in the department certified as an expert polygraphist. Before Wheaton completed his training, the department either consulted a retired examiner in Waverly or was put on a waiting list for a Bureau of Criminal Investigation and Identification test in London.
The added responsibility of issuing the test and potentially gaining a confession does not bother Wheaton.
“It will make my job a lot busier, but I look at it as a good thing,” he said. “Not only will I be able to help convict the right person, but I can also clear a wrongly accused person, too. When the police identify you as a suspect but you know you’re innocent, nothing feels better than to take a polygraph test and pass it.”
The polygraph machine is widely used in law enforcement to eliminate suspects, but Sheriff Ron Nichols said it is rare a small-town department can boast an in-house authority.
“The training is just so intensive, few men actually make it to ‘expert,’ and to know we have one right here in the department will be a tremendous help,” he said.
Nichols said he is confident the test will not only discern truth from lies in interrogations but prompt suspects to confess when they realize they can’t lie their way out of the investigation. More confessions, he said, will lead to stronger cases for the prosecution.
“There’s no question a solid confession is like a slam dunk in court,” he said.
The test uses the body’s involuntary reactions to detect levels of deceptions. Wheaton said after he places a blood pressure cuff and heart monitor on the subject’s arm and chest, he explains the exam and begins asking scripted questions to gain a reference point for truthful and deceptive answers.
“By then, most suspects realize they are screwed,” he said. “They start sweating, fidgeting and slumping their shoulders because, at that point, they know I know when they are lying.”
Once the test begins, Wheaton said, he asks a series of 10 “yes” and “no” questions designed to ascertain a person’s involvement in a crime. Asking the right questions can have just as much impact on the accuracy of the test, he said.
“With a poorly worded question or one that is not emotionally charged enough, you will not get the psychological reactions you want,” he said.
While the admissibility of these tests is questioned in some court cases, Mike Corwin, former police chief of the Waverly Police Department and the next closest expert polygraphist, said it is highly unlikely a person can beat a polygraph test.
“We look at physical characteristics you can’t change or alter,” he said. “Unless you are a complete sociopath, the tests are pretty accurate.”
Corwin said only one in about 1,000 people can actually lie their way through a polygraph test.
However, the average person is no match for Wheaton. He was trained at a school founded by Dick Arthur, the same polygraphist the federal government used during the Iran-Contra affair and the John F. Kennedy assassination.
The notion that polygraph results can be used to “clear” a suspect is a dangerous delusion: polygraph “testing” has no scientific basis whatsoever. And despite Mike Corwin’s claim that only one in about 1,000 people can beat the polygraph, peer-reviewed research has shown that half of deceptive subjects provided with a maximum of 30 minutes of instruction passed. The foregoing article is a good example of the kind of credulous, uncritical journalism that helped establish the myth of the lie detector in American culture.