James Holmes and the ethics of “truth serum”

Putting the Aurora shooter through a narcolanalytic interview won't provide truth or prove sanity

Topics: james holmes, Aurora shooting, Colorado, truth serum, sodium amytal, barbituates,

The first thing to note about “truth serum” — the sort of substance that Colorado prosecutors have permission to use on Aurora shooter James Holmes should he plead insane — is that it has little to do with truth-telling.

Judge William Sylvester did not in so many words grant the use of truth serum on Holmes, because truth serum is the stuff of Hogwarts and not juridical determinations. What Sylvester granted was that a “narcoanalytic interview” could be employed to determine if Holmes is genuinely insane. This would entail injecting the accused mass murderer with gradual doses of a barbiturate (most likely sodium amytal) while prosecutors subject him to questioning.

Like taking other barbiturates (or even just a few too many stiff drinks), sodium amytal (also known as sodium amobarbital) can function to lower inhibitions and prompts willingness to talk. In his column on “‘Truth serum’ and ‘what really happened’,” psychiatrist August Piper detailed how narcoanalytic interviews typically proceed:

During an Amytal interview, the physician administers small amounts of the drug, by vein, every few minutes. The procedure usually takes about an hour. The patient is drowsy and slurred of speech, but awake — the so-called “twilight state” for the duration of the interview. Intravenous Amytal causes a feeling of relaxation, warmth, and closeness to the interviewer; while in this state, the patient is questioned. Other intravenous drugs, like Valium or Ativan, are sometimes used in this kind of procedure. For our purposes, these medicines should be considered essentially identical to IV Amytal, because they produce these same effects on the patient.

Piper stresses, however, that amytal’s inhibition-lowering effects in no way prompt the subject to offer up true statements or memories. Psychology Today’s Scott Linfield noted, per Piper, that “there’s good reason to believe that truth serums merely lower the threshold for reporting virtually all information, both true and false. As a consequence, like other suggestive therapeutic procedures, such as guided imagery, repeated prompting, hypnosis, and journaling, truth serums can actually increase the risk of false memories – memories of events that never occurred, but are held with great conviction.”



But with the Holmes case, accurate memories are not what’s at stake — whether the 25-year-old can make a legitimate insanity plea is. “Prosecutors would use ["truth serum"] to prove that he’s malingering, or feigning illness, psychiatric illness in this case. Doctors first attempted to use the chemical for this purpose in the 1940s, when a psychiatrist claimed to get several drugged soldiers to admit their malingering,” noted Slate’s Brian Palmer, adding, however, that the Colorado judge’s decision is odd since “there are better ways to identify malingering, and they don’t require the medical risks and ethical complications of chemical intervention. Psychiatrists typically subject patients to round-the-clock monitoring, because it’s difficult to fake insanity all the time.”

Palmer wrote that sodium amytal has been used in insanity pleas before, “although usually to prove insanity rather than disprove it”:

In the late 1980s, for example, attorneys for a New Jersey man who had shot his ex-girlfriend at point-blank range in view of dozens of bystanders used a narcoanalytic interview to have his murder sentence cut in half. In a sober state, the defendant mentioned having visions of the devil but had no memory of the shooting. Under the influence of sodium amobarbital, he claimed that his girlfriend morphed into a horned, flame-breathing devil just before he opened fire. Although the judge didn’t allow the psychiatrists to mention sodium amobarbital or “truth serum” in court, they were permitted to offer their opinions of the defendant’s mental condition, which were based in part on the narcoanalytic interview. (Most judges treat narcoanalytic interviews like polygraph examinations and keep them out of evidence.)

The ethical issues appear glaring around the administration of a drug for nonmedical purposes, with questionable efficacy for the court’s stated purpose. Defense attorneys have already filed a motion opposing the narcoanalytic interview, but the judge has signed the order permitting it.

Talking to ABC News, Alison Winter, a professor of history of science and medicine at the University of Chicago, detailed the outdated models of mind and memory that continued reliance on “truth serum” reflects. “Understanding of memory has shifted a lot over the years,” Winter said, adding, “The idea that the truth about what a person is like or the truth about what they did is just sitting inside their body waiting to be almost surgically extracted … it is just so enticing if you desperately need that information … So I think we keep coming back to it, but then we also keep rejecting it.”

Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email nlennard@salon.com.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>