People Are Being Sent To Prison For 'Sounding Guilty' On 911 Calls

Criminal Justice System
People Are Being Sent To Prison For 'Sounding Guilty' On 911 Calls
911 Dispatch 3 | ICMA Photos | Flickr

People react to tragedies, to emergencies in all kinds of ways. Some cry immediately, some are in too much shock to cry. Some are just afraid to start crying for fear they may never stop. Some people burst into nervous, uncontrollable laughter. Some go hysterical, others become increasingly methodical and seemingly calm. Sometimes people alternate between a variety of reactions. It's hard to know how you or anyone else will react until it happens.

It's bad enough when you see cops with no proven psychic abilities talking on TV about how they just "knew" someone was guilty because of the way they behaved on a 911 call, or even in person during an interview, but lately that behavior is being used to actually send people to prison. "911 call analysis," a new junk science created by Tracy Harpster, an Ohio deputy police chief who believes he knows "what a guilty father, mother or boyfriend sounds like,” is being adopted by police and prosecutors across the country in order to "prove" the guilt of 911 callers — and to convict them of crimes they did not commit.

Via ProPublica:

In 2016, Missouri prosecutor Leah Askey wrote Harpster an effusive email, bluntly detailing how she skirted legal rules to exploit his methods against unwitting defendants.

“Of course this line of research is not ‘recognized’ as a science in our state,” Askey wrote, explaining that she had sidestepped hearings that would have been required to assess the method’s legitimacy. She said she disguised 911 call analysis in court by “getting creative … without calling it ‘science.’”

“I was confident that if a jury could hear this information and this research,” she added, “they would be as convinced as I was of the defendant's guilt.”

What Askey didn’t say in her endorsement was this: She had once tried using Harpster’s methods against Russ Faria, a man wrongfully convicted of killing his wife.

Yes, it's not "recognized" as a science, because it is not one.

Tracy Harpster, who has practically no experience solving homicide cases, travels around the country offering to teach his methods to police for up to $3500 for an eight-hour course. His "research" and methods have been touted by the FBI, even — and introduced to police departments across the country by the agency's Behavioral Analysis Unit.

That is, until, their own studies debunked it.

Then, in a 2020 study, experts from the bureau’s Behavioral Analysis Unit finally tried to see whether the methods had any actual merit. They tested Harpster’s guilty indicators against a sample of emergency calls, mostly from military bases, to try to replicate what they called “groundbreaking 911 call analysis research.”

Instead, they ended up warning against using that research to bring actual cases. The indicators were so inconsistent, the experts said, that some went “in the opposite direction of what was previously found."

This fall, a separate group of FBI experts in the same unit tested Harpster’s model, this time in missing child cases. Again, their findings contradicted his, so much so that they said applying 911 call analysis in real life “may exacerbate bias.”

Despite this, police departments across the country are still utilizing his methods to determine guilt, often where there is none.

Junk science like handwriting analysis, blood spatter analysis (sorry, Dexter fans), fiber analysis, dowsing (no, really), shaken baby syndrome, bite mark analysis, and all the other things you see on CSI (or Silent Witness, if you have better taste than that) has been used for years to convict people of crimes they did not actually commit. Part of the allure for juries is the idea that these things are "scientific proof" and therefore seem more trustworthy than other forms of evidence, despite the fact that they are nonsense.

"911 call analysis" can't be described as "science," and in most cases it can't even be explicitly pushed in a courtroom by prosecutors, but it has an appeal of another kind. People like to feel like they can tell people are guilty by their behavior or the sound of their voice, and many like the idea of trusting that police officers, with their many years of experience, can definitely tell if people are innocent or guilty without evidence. It makes them feel safe — not only does it mean that the bad people can go away, it also means that they themselves will not be convicted of a crime they did not commit. Because their behavior would show that they are innocent.

Right now, the United States has 25 percent of the world's prison population. We find out near-constantly that people have spent decades in prison for crimes they did not commit — often because of junk science like this. Or because a police officer just had a "gut feeling" about someone's guilt. It's gotta stop somewhere, and it needs to start with an outright ban on junk science in the courtroom, however it is disguised.

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Robyn Pennacchia

Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse


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