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'Hidden Brain': How Psychology Was Misused In Teen's Murder Case

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

On an autumn night in 1979, a young cab driver named Jeffrey Boyajian was shot to death in Boston. The police didn't have much to go on, and so they turned to questionable techniques to single out a 16-year-old as the killer. NPR's Shankar Vedantam explains how flawed ideas from psychology were used to put a teenager behind bars and why those ideas may still be at play in other criminal cases.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: In the movies, psychological techniques invariably elicit the truth.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AUDREY ROSE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Now, I will be hypnotizing the subject, who will be brought to me, while you watch.

VEDANTAM: Today, you hear that kind of stuff and think, OK, it's Hollywood, but in the '70s, hypnosis seemed like a powerful tool to use in criminal investigations. So when police found Jeffrey Boyajian's body slumped against a dumpster in 1979, they relied on hypnosis to find suspects. It started with a witness named Richard Dwyer. The morning after Jeffrey Boyajian's murder, police got a phone call from Dwyer. He said he'd seen three men get into Boyajian's taxi around the time of the shooting. But Dwyer only gave vague descriptions of the three men, so the police decided to hypnotize him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHARD DWYER: I pictured - in my mind's eye, I could picture the scene that was - at that night.

VEDANTAM: Here's Dwyer at the murder trial. He described the clarity that hypnosis gave him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DWYER: It was very clear to me. It was almost like a TV screen.

VEDANTAM: When police presented him with a photo lineup, Dwyer confidently picked out two people, a man named James Watson and a 16-year-old named Fred Clay. This idea that you can pluck a memory from your mind and then use hypnosis to zoom in on it like a sports replay runs counter to what researchers now know about how the mind works.

SAM SOMMERS: Memory does not work like that. It does not work like a video camera or a DVR.

VEDANTAM: Tufts University psychologist Sam Sommers says hypnosis-induced testimony is problematic.

SOMMERS: If your goal is to get people to get to their - to the actual memory for the actual scene in question, if they didn't encode it at the time, it's probably not there to be retrieved.

VEDANTAM: We reached out to Richard Dwyer for our story, but he didn't respond to our request. Lawyer Lisa Kavanaugh works with the Innocence Program in Massachusetts and has helped Fred Clay with his case. She says there were multiple problems with the way police worked with Dwyer and other witnesses in the case. But she says Dwyer still stands behind his identification four decades later.

LISA KAVANAUGH: You certainly can't undo the power of having been told through hypnosis you're going to be able to go back and zoom in on the faces of the people you saw and freeze the events so that you can, you know, zoom in on their features. Once you've been told that as an eyewitness, it's really hard not to believe the strength of the memory that you have.

VEDANTAM: Fred Clay still remembers the day the police came for him.

FRED CLAY: They told me that I was being arrested for murder of a cab driver, and I said, excuse me, you got the wrong person. I was never in a cab.

VEDANTAM: In fact, at the time of the murder, Clay says he was asleep in his room at a foster home. His foster mother would later testify that Clay had been home that night with the front door locked from the inside.

CLAY: So I was in that room all that time sleeping. I didn't know the door was locked. I didn't even know the murder was happening.

VEDANTAM: But police would have none of it. They were sure they had the right person. As a minor, Clay should have been tried in juvenile court. But the prosecution wanted to try him as an adult. A judge decided that he wasn't showing enough remorse for his actions, this despite the fact that Clay had not yet been tried or convicted. The judge felt Clay should not be treated as a child. This decision was based in part on the outcome of a Rorschach test where a person is asked to look at an inkblot and describe what he sees. Clay says he has no idea why people asked him to interpret splotches of ink.

CLAY: I just gave them my answer. They told me look at it and tell me what I thought. I just told them what I thought the picture looked like.

VEDANTAM: The tests supposedly revealed that Clay's mind was twisted and dangerous. He was 17 years old when he and his codefendant, James Watson, were tried together in adult court.

CLAY: And they found me guilty of first-degree murder, which means I got an unnatural life sentence.

VEDANTAM: He was effectively sentenced to die in prison.

CLAY: They put a kid in prison for a murder he did not commit. You know, people say they want to - you know, they want to know the truth, but when you tell them the truth, they don't respect the truth. They're not listening to the truth. They don't accept the truth. And when I was growing up, they had this notions about kids should be seen and not heard. And I was being seen, but I was not being heard.

VEDANTAM: The use of the inkblot test has largely been discredited in forensic settings. But 17 states still allow hypnotically induced testimony, and the Justice Department's manual for federal prosecutors says that, in rare cases, forensic hypnosis can aid investigations. We don't have data on how many people convicted using this technique remain behind bars. But according to the National Registry of Exonerations, there have been at least 10 cases of wrongful conviction that involve hypnosis. Clay would still be in prison today, but a few years ago, he was granted parole and Lisa Kavanaugh helped get his conviction thrown out. Some 38 years after he was arrested at age 16, Clay was free.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLAY: This is the first time I walked without shackles, so there's a lot of life I got - I need to make up on.

VEDANTAM: Fred Clay's codefendant, James Watson, is still serving out his sentence. Watson's guilty verdict was based in part on the same problematic eyewitness testimonies that put Clay in prison. Watson is now seeking to have his conviction overturned. Shankar Vedantam, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF 5ALARM MUSIC'S "BARNACLES")

GREENE: Shankar is the host of the Hidden Brain podcast and radio show, which explores stories just like this one about the gap between how we think our minds work and how they actually work.

(SOUNDBITE OF 5ALARM MUSIC'S "BARNACLES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.