The murder was solved in just a few minutes, the old-fashioned way: Late one summer afternoon, Faujdar Muhammad Shaikh and five other police officers dragged Gunnoo Kunbi into a cowshed, held his face down in the filth and sodomised him with an umbrella until he confessed. Then, Gunnoo was led to the well where the body of his five-year-old niece had been and made to admit his guilt to the assembled villagers. Two days later, on 13 August 1854, Gunnoo died in a Nasik police cell, haemorrhaging into his intestines.
“Laziness,” an imperial civil servant later explained to the judge and philosopher James Fitzpatrick Stephen. “It is far pleasanter to sit comfortably in the shade rubbing red pepper in a poor devil’s eyes than to go about in the sun hunting up evidence.”
Fastening coconut shells housing a scorpion onto the navel of a suspect, inserting pepper inside the anus, squeezing the testicles, nipping the flesh with pincers searing with hot irons, dipping people in wells until they were half-suffocated: the East India Company police, the judge Malcolm Lewin recorded, were endlessly inventive.
Last week, amid growing public anger over the murder of call-centre worker Shraddha Walker, the Delhi Police secured court permission to conduct a narco analysis on her former boyfriend and alleged killer Aftab Amin Poonawalla. A narco test, involving the intravenous administration of a drug, also called the ‘truth serum’, is used to draw confessions from the suspect in an anaesthetic state. Although the Supreme Court has made it clear that statements obtained under narco analysis cannot be used as evidence—and mandated that informed consent from suspects must first be obtained—police forces in India have shown abiding faith that it can help when investigators run into a wall.
Earlier this year, a court in Mumbai ordered narco analysis of a suspect case of missing Mumbai student Sadiccha Sane. The Uttar Pradesh government had sought narco analysis of the family of a victim of a rape-murder in Hathras in 2020.
For decades, though, both science and experience have suggested otherwise. “The intravenous injection of a drug by a physician in a hospital may appear more scientific than the drinking of large amounts of bourbon in a tavern,” psychiatrist John McDonald warned in 1956, “But the end results displayed in the subject’s speech may be no more reliable.”
Like torture, narco analysis is an excellent tool for extracting confessions—but that isn’t the same thing as discovering the truth.
The sunrise of scopolamine
Late in the 19th century, not many decades after Gunnoo’s death, the German chemist Ernst Schmidt isolated the drug scopolamine from the rhizome of a purple-flowered shrub growing in the mountains of Slovenia. For centuries, communities had known of the hallucinogenic properties of henbane, blamed by the church for the orgiastic revels of witches. Early in the last century, injections of scopolamine began to be used to ease childbirth, and it did not take long for its hypnotic effects to be discovered.
The small-town Texas doctor Robert House, scholar Alison Winter writes, popularised the idea that scopolamine could be used as a ‘truth serum’ by bringing about a trance-like state, which induced confession. To House, this seemed a humane alternative to torture: The police, he observed, “go after confessions and get them, sometimes true, sometimes false, but they always get confessions”.
From an early stage, though, it was clear scopolamine was no magical tool to extract the truth. In 1924, five separate individuals separately confessed to a series of axe-murders in Alabama. In another case in Hawaii, a chauffeur accused of kidnapping and murder confessed in one narcoanalytic session, then resiled in a second— before police arrested, and eventually convicted, a separate individual.
Even where scopolamine registered success, its utility as a criminal investigation tool had limitations. In 1934, a man accused of killing his lover’s husband was asked where he hid the murder weapon. He variously claimed to have thrown it in a river, and had hidden it amid some heather. These were confusing answers since the gun had been found next to the victim. The police later learned the man was wanted for several other murders—but never did secure a confession in the case itself.
Law enforcement in America eagerly embraced more sophisticated drugs like sodium amytal and sodium pentathol as they became available later in the century.
For the most part, scholar James Michaelis has noted, medical professionals became ever-less enthusiastic about the results. Yale scholars observed in 1953 that narco analysis had useful psychiatric applications but was “not a truth-eliciting device”. Fantasies and facts were sometimes enmeshed in indistinguishable ways while “there are offenders who are able to cover up guilt even under deepest narcosis”.
As early as 1963, the United States Supreme Court held the conviction of a murder suspect was vitiated by a confession obtained through narco analysis. The practice all but disappeared—only once surfacing in 2012 as a part of a defendant’s effort to support an insanity plea.
Law enforcement and intelligence community in America pushed to be allowed to use narco analysis in terrorism cases after 9/11. The bid, scholar Jason Odesho writes, failed both because of doubts over the reliability of the testimony that could be obtained and legal concerns.
Flailing in the face of the train bombings that tore apart Mumbai in 2008, Indian investigators turned to narco analysis in the hopes of securing a breakthrough. The evidence that led to the conviction of the 7/11 plotters, though, has been challenged by independent investigators as well as chargesheets filed by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) itself in other cases. Abdul Wahid Sheikh, acquitted of having participated in the 7/11 bombings, has alleged he was tortured during narco analysis to make false confessions.
Like torture, bad-faith narco analysis was to lead to a succession of scandals. Authorities eventually terminated the services of S. Malini, who conducted narco analysis in several high-profile cases. In one case, Malini was accused of tampering with evidence involving the murder of a Kerala nun.
The 2007 bombing of the Mecca Masjid in Hyderabad led to narco analytic tests on several Muslim suspects. The tests suggested guilt, but the confessions were found by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the NIA as not conforming with evidence.
Famously, the leaked video of the narco analysis of Krishna Thadarai—accused by the CBI of murdering Delhi teenager Aarushi Talwar—showed him providing multiple contradictory answers. The forensic examiner’s questioning of Krishna frequently conflated his speculation with statements of fact and planted suggestions.
The scholar Jinee Lokaneeta has, based on extensive fieldwork, suggested that Indian police forces are seeking to substitute investigative competence and resources with ‘Truth Machines’. “Truth machines represent a technical solution for the ills of the criminal justice system,” she argues.
The results of bad-faith science
Experts across the world have been increasingly questioning the infiltration of junk science into policing. A study by the prestigious National Academy of the Sciences in the United States noted the lack of validation for increasingly widespread forensic tools such as ballistic and toolmark identification, fingerprint examinations, questioned document comparisons, hair analysis, and bite mark sampling.
Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) officials, who had repeatedly asserted that fingerprint matches were zero-error, were forced to retract their claims after the wrongful arrest of lawyer Brandon Mayfield for a terrorist bombing in Barcelona.
The degree of similarity between Mayfield’s prints and the man held for the attacks, the US government later said, “is extraordinarily rare, and confused three FBI fingerprint examiners”. There is still no quantification, however, of just how rare such errors in fact are.
Even gold-standard technologies like DNA sampling can—and do—mislead. A long-running German police hunt for a serial criminal linked to 40 crimes ended, eventually, in the discovery of a worker at the plant where the swabs used to collect samples were made. The worker had no link to any of the crimes.
Exercised in bad faith, science has no different result from scorpions or testicle crushing. Finding the truth needs patience, persistence, and careful police work. Even where all these elements are present, success is not guaranteed. The pressure to solve crime pushes police forces to embrace dubious short-cuts that might yield convictions, but end up eroding the legitimacy of criminal justice itself.
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(Edited by Humra Laeeq)