Richard Rackleff checked his messages in late 1996 and saw he had 138, with seemingly every media outlet in the country wanting an interview.
He had just recently performed one of the most high-profile polygraph examinations: Richard Jewell, a former security guard who was falsely accused of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing.
As Rackleff saw it, the man went from being a hero one day to being villainized the next.
With satellite trucks tracking Jewell’s every move, an attorney contacted Rackleff about an exam.
“He’s inconclusive, because he’s got a stress level up to here. He had to fight his way just to get in the door through people. It was unbelievable what he was going through,” Rackleff said.
Once the Olympics were over and most of the press had left town, Rackleff examined Jewell again.
After three series of questions between these two occasions, Jewell and his attorney put out a press release about the man being non-deceptive.
“It changed the direction,” Rackleff said, as the focus shifted away from Jewell. Eric Rudolph, the man responsible for the bombing, was captured in 2003.
Rackleff and Von Jennings, who are two former federal polygraph examiners, now share an office space off of McEver Road at Jennings’ Northeast Georgia Polygraph Services.
“We are more in the background. That’s why you don’t see it a lot in cases. You don’t know that a case was solved by polygraph, because they don’t publicize it,” Jennings said.
Jennings, who has trained Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents as well as law enforcement in countries such as Mexico and South Africa, started the business in 1998.
Georgia is one of the few states where polygraph exams can be admitted into evidence in criminal trials if both sides agree. An attorney in a Hall County rape case recently sought Jennings’ services.
But how reliable and accurate is it?
The American Polygraph Association completed a report in 2011 analyzing all peer-reviewed studies.
The aggregated decision accuracy of event-specific questioning, which is about a single issue such as a crime, was 89%, while questioning on multiple issues returned an 85% accuracy rate.
The National Research Council summarized its review of studies in 2003 as “specific-incident polygraph tests can discriminate lying from truth telling at rates well above chance, though well below perfection.” Other research on polygraph efficacy has pointed to higher accuracy when conducted by a highly trained examiner with proper controls.
Jennings and Rackleff both went through the Department of Defense Polygraph Institute, a 16-week course.
“When I went through polygraph school, I had a master’s degree. I studied more in 16 weeks than I did in six years of college. That’s how difficult it was,” Jennings said.
Rackleff retired as an FBI special agent, and Jennings is a retired Army criminal investigations division agent.
“If it’s not reliable, then why does every investigative unit in the federal government and every intelligence unit in the federal government use it? Why does the GBI use it?” Jennings asked.
Next to Jennings’ computer is a custom-made chair given to him for his directorship at the Atlanta polygraph institute.
Testing concerns changes in cardiovascular, respiratory and electrodermal responses. Electrodermal activity, as defined by the Journal of Neuroscience Methods, is defined as the “variation of the electrical properties of the skin in response to sweat secretion.”
The person being examined will have straps around the stomach and upper chest, a blood pressure cuff and two finger plates. A black pad on the seat monitors movement from the waist down. Tests usually last two to three hours.
Jennings recalled a 1987 murder case in New Orleans, where he examined a man about a shooting. Though the suspect was calmer during questions about shooting the victim, his response to a question about the location of the murder weapon was off the chart.
After an interrogation, the man confessed.
"The reason he reacted to that question about the murder weapon is on the way to take the polygraph test ... he went by Burger King and threw the weapon in the Dempsey dumpster," Jennings said.
Jennings was quick to knock down myths and misconceptions regarding polygraph, such as the belief that an innocent person could fail a test due to nervousness.
“You’re going to be nervous, and we adjust for that,” Jennings said.
In a 2004 research study, the American Psychological Association had concern for potential “placebo-like effects.”
“One reason that polygraph tests may appear to be accurate is that subjects who believe that the test works and that they can be detected may confess or will be very anxious when questioned. If this view is correct, the lie detector might be better called a fear detector,” according to an American Psychological Association’s article.
Northeast Judicial Circuit District Attorney Lee Darragh said the division among those in the scientific community makes him believe there is “good reason” for polygraph to only be admissible in court with a stipulation from both parties.
“Further, if polygraph results were admissible there would exist too much danger that jurors would substitute those results for their own considered judgement based on the facts and the law of a case as to the truthfulness of witnesses. In my career, I’ve seen numerous situations wherein polygraph results simply don’t reflect known fact from admissible evidence to give polygraph much credence,” Darragh said.
Darragh did not, however, “discount their continued use” in some investigation “to the extent that subjects of interest believe that the results of any such testing may be valid, and truthful statements may result from that belief.”