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The Truth About Truth Serum

It may make for loose lips but not necessarily elicit honest answers.

November 05, 2001|SCOTT MARTELLE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In operating rooms, anesthesiologists have long noted that some patients experience a sense of euphoria and begin chatting as sodium pentothal passes them into unconsciousness.

"Any drug that loosens inhibitions can lead someone to not realize what they're saying," said Dr. William J. Loskota, an assistant professor of anesthesiology at USC's Keck school. "It would take a careful and skillful interrogator to elicit the kinds of responses desired. And always a concern is, are they drug-induced responses? Are they real?"

Loskota and other anesthesiologists argue that even if the responses are suspect, getting any information from the four detained men might be worth the effort.

Dr. Ronald Katz, who teaches anesthesiology at USC and UCLA, has used sodium pentothal on thousands of patients over the last 40 years.

Katz said he occasionally has been startled by confessions of infidelity or other revelations by patients as they slip into unconsciousness, though he has not sought to verify their accuracy. And, he said, it remains unclear how such a compound would work on someone who refuses to divulge information, as opposed to someone who is unwittingly repressing memories.

"There is no good scientific data on what percentage of people will answer questions truthfully, but based on my experience it's less than 50-50," Katz said. "It's certainly worth a try, with someone good doing it. But it's also conceivable that if you don't do it right, the person could pretend to be under the influence and say misleading or wrong things. It's basically a very long shot, but it might work."

Whether it should work is another matter. Doctors question the ethics of administering drugs for nonmedical purposes. And court experts said the subject opens fresh legal veins.

"This is all new stuff," said Dershowitz. "Can you get a search warrant to search a person's mind? The courts have never thought about that."

Charles Weisselberg, a law professor at UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law, said the Supreme Court once barred police from surgically removing a bullet from an uncooperative shooting victim so they could match it to a weapon. "The court said that would be an unreasonable search and seizure," Weisselberg said.

"But what's reasonable may depend in part on the threatened harm or the nature of the investigation. A court ... would have in mind the question of whether allowing this to go forward might save a lot of lives."

Both Weisselberg and Dershowitz said that if investigators used a truth serum without a court order or warrant, they wouldn't be able to use information gained against the individual suspect. But they might be able to use the information to prosecute others.

Dershowitz likened the situation to that of a material witness who has been granted immunity and thus can be legally compelled to testify against his will.

"The question is, what means can be used to get him to satisfy the legal obligation?" Dershowitz said. "But is it the right thing to do? That's the moral question."

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