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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Brain-Based Lie Detection Leads to Murder Conviction in India

According to this article in the Herald Tribune, a woman in India was convicted of murder on the basis of what is purported to be a brain-based method of lie detection:

The various technologies, generally regarded as promising but unproved, have yet to be widely accepted as evidence - except in India, where in recent years judges have begun to admit brain scans. But it was only in June, in a murder case in Pune, in Maharashtra State, that a judge explicitly cited a scan as proof that the suspect's brain held ''experiential knowledge'' about the crime that only the killer could possess, sentencing her to life in prison.

The test was based on electroencephalography and appears to be related to so-called "brain fingerprinting"  technology developed by Lawrence Farwell in the United States.  (The article refers to the "brain images" generated from the technique, though I don't think EEG provides the sort of information that we would ordinarily think of as a "brain image").

Here's some more:

Here in Maharashtra, about 75 crime suspects and witnesses have undergone the test since late 2006. But the technique received its strongest official endorsement, forensic investigators here say, on June 12, when a judge convicted a woman of murder based on evidence that included polygraph and BEOS tests [the purported brain-based lie detection tests  -AK].

  The woman, Aditi Sharma, 24, was accused of killing her former fiancé, Udit Bharati. They were living in Pune when Sharma met another man and eloped with him to Delhi. Months later, Sharma returned to Pune and, according to prosecutors, asked Bharati to meet her at a McDonald's. She was accused of poisoning him with arsenic-laced food.

  Sharma agreed to take a BEOS test in Mumbai, the capital of Maharashtra.

  After placing 32 electrodes on Sharma's head, investigators said, they read aloud their version of events, making such first-person statements as ''I bought arsenic'' and ''I met Udit at McDonald's,'' along with neutral statements like ''The sky is blue,'' which help the software distinguish actual remembrance from normal cognition.

  For an hour, Sharma said nothing. But the relevant nooks of her brain where memories are thought to be stored buzzed when the crime was recounted, according to Joseph, the state investigator. The judge endorsed Joseph's assertion that the scans were proof of ''experiential knowledge'' of having committed the murder, rather than just having heard about it. In the only other significant judicial statement on BEOS, a judge in 2006 in Gujarat denied the test the status of ''concluded proof,'' but wrote that it corroborated already solid evidence from other sources.

  In any event, what do neuroscientists in the U.S. think of the technique?  Here's a good summary:

After passing an 18-page promotional dossier about the BEOS test to a few of his colleagues, Michael Gazzaniga, a neuroscientist and director of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said: ''Well, the experts all agree. This work is shaky at best.''

Indeed!  The thought that such a technology could play a significant role in sending someone to prison for life, before the technology has been proven effective in peer-reviewed journals, is very troubling.

(Hat tip: Emily Murphy)

Posted by Adam Kolber on September 9, 2008 at 04:32 PM | Permalink


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Tracked on Sep 10, 2008 6:27:20 AM


Having just read several accounts of the death of Udit Bharati today, in connection with the 'brain scan' technology -- guess what? NOWHERE do I find anything remotely sounding like a solid motive for the crime in this case. If anything, the dead man seems to have been repeatedly contacting his former girlfriend, hoping for a reconciliation, which is very normal in these student romances. The prosecution in India argued that since the dead man's grades in his MBA studies were not suffering, he was not suicidal. What kind of stupid psychological analysis is that one? Suicidial people can maintain a good front right until the end. I believe the woman is indeed innocent. She and her new heart-throb arranged to meet Udit at MacDonald's in an attempt to just close the chapter, but the rejected young man poisoned himself in order to hurt the girl and dramatize his plight. He may not have thought he would actually die either. The convicted pair insist the dead man poisoned his own meal, and I completely believe them. But here we have high-tech, well-paid scientists getting on the bandwagon for more jobs at the Homeland Security government tit.

Posted by: Cheryl Thomson | Sep 16, 2008 1:33:58 PM

Jason: There's no jingoism in the post. I would be just as skeptical of the technology no matter where it is used. There is no doubt that the technology underwent a certain level of scrutiny in India. The claim is that the level of scrutiny was insufficient. There are, of course, techniques used in the U.S. that are troubling, too. They're just not the subject of the post.

Posted by: Adam Kolber | Sep 9, 2008 7:32:41 PM

Good grief! Though this brain scan "evidence" is certainly troubling, the jingoism in this post is palpable. The unreliability of eyewitness evidence is also stunning and supported by scads of research (not to mention actual experience), yet U.S. courts send innocent people to their DEATH based on such unreliable "evidence." Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones!

Posted by: Jason Kilborn | Sep 9, 2008 5:54:55 PM

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