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Using Truth Serum to Determine Sanity of Colorado Shooter James Holmes

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“Truth serum” (or sodium pentothal) is the stuff of good spy movies, a way to get your victim to spill the beans about what he knows. While it adds a good twist to thrillers, its real power is negligible, but apparently that message has yet to reach the Colorado courts. The judge who will be trying the case of James Holmes (perpetrator of the Aurora, Colorado, Century theater massacre) has allowed the use of a “narcoanalytic interview” as part of the competency evaluation of Holmes before the trial, according to CNN.

According to the British newspaper “The Guardian,” “Judge William Sylvester ruled that in the event of Holmes pleading insanity his prosecutors would be permitted to interrogate him while he is under the influence of a medical drug designed to loosen him up and get him to talk. The idea would be that such a ‘narcoanalytic interview’ would be used to confirm whether or not he had been legally insane when he embarked on his shooting spree….”

What is sodium pentothal?

The drug known as sodium pentothal was discovered in 1936 by scientists working at Abbott Labs in Chicago, who were researching drugs for the use of anesthesia during surgery. Even today, sodium pentothal is used to “knock out” patients before another drug is applied to keep them unconscious during surgical procedures.

The drug is an effective tool for surgery, but one interesting side effect is that people under the influence of sodium pentothal tend to lose their inhibitions, rambling on freely about all sorts of interesting topics.

Behavior under sodium pentothal

This once led some to believe that its use might be applied by law enforcement for interrogations. However, while this “truth serum” does loosen lips, it doesn’t necessarily mean the individual will reveal “the truth.”

People under the influence of sodium pentothal don’t necessarily stop lying or fantasizing. And, in fact, they sometimes become more compliant, tending to be easily swayed by the person questioning them, whether that is the truth or not. According to CNN, “For the most part, people yammer away. If anything, they behave as if they were drunk rather than diligently affirming the sober truth.”

Applying “truth serum” to James Holmes

While the court might be desperate for answers about the motivation and level of sanity of James Holmes when he committed such an unthinkable act, it’s unlikely that the application of sodium pentothal can truly provide any answers.

In fact, the application of this technique may work to his favor, if his lawyers can demonstrate that while he was drugged, he was forced to testify against himself against his own will, thus violating his rights.

Lawyers and scientists weigh in

Whether James Holmes was sane or not when he committed such a horrific act will not be determined by the application of any “truth serum.” In fact, American Bar Association Criminal Justice Chair William Shepherd predicted that the use of any drug to verify the truth of Holmes’ sanity or statements would likely lead to intense legal argument about the right of any defendant to remain silent according to the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution.

There are also scientific questions about the use of sodium pentothal or sodium amytal (another “truth serum” drug that has been suggested). According to Psychiatrist Dr. August Piper, not only are patients under the drug susceptible to suggestion, gaining the truth about what happened retrospectively is even more difficult. It is much more likely that a patient can reflect on the present circumstances better than what happened some time ago.

While these drugs have been tried in cases of “lost memories” about events, their success rate has been negligible there as well. In the end, the courts and public may never know the truth about James Holmes and his actions, and using a “truth serum” is unlikely to produce any definitive answers.

More about this author: Christine Zibas

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