Forensic Hypnosis in Famous Court Cases

"You are getting sleepy. Very sleepy." Private detective Paul Grey thinks to himself and then laughs at this stereotypical belief of how hypnosis works. Only he knows it’s not that simple and a hypnotized person isn’t asleep even though the Greek root word in hypnosis is hypnos, which means to sleep. Under hypnosis Paul might appear to be asleep, but he is actually in a state of altered consciousness characterized by heightened awareness, deep relaxation, and suggestibility. There is decreased activity in the muscles, slowed breathing and heart rate, but the mind and senses become more alert and memories become more accessible. When hypnotized, Paul can vividly remember events from early childhood, like the first day of school, but in such detail he could tell you what he wore, what his teacher wore, and all of the surroundings he thought were long forgotten.

On his way to his hypnosis appointment Paul is able to focus so precisely on his driving that he blocks out all the stimuli around him, yet he still knows what is going on. He drives his car, but then won’t remember how he got there. Yet, obviously, he was still in control of the car: he didn’t run any red lights or have a wreck. Paul has experienced a form of self-hypnosis, that practically everyone can achieve – he has lost track of time. Hypnosis patients are often surprised their sessions have lasted two hours or longer, yet they feel as if hardly any time has gone by.

Upon arriving, Paul’s hypnotist dispels some common misconceptions about hypnosis spread through its portrayal in Hollywood movies, on television, and hypnosis stage shows. The hypnotist explains that Paul cannot be made to divulge secrets, be forced to tell the truth, or get "stuck" in hypnosis. Paul cannot be made to do crazy or embarrassing things like taking off all his clothes or acting like a chicken unless he is already motivated to do so or it is part of his underlying personality. It is important to realize Paul can lie or make up information while under hypnosis because of the highly suggestible state; however, this would have to be something he would already be willing to do. In other words, the hypnotist cannot control Paul. Even under hypnosis he will not do anything against his own will. Hypnosis makes Paul less inhibited, like the effects of alcohol or drugs, however it is not dangerous to him.

Paul and his hypnotist know the multitude of uses for hypnosis besides entertainment. Its uses include the treatment of many mental and physical conditions like phobias, overeating, smoking, school or sports performance, and self-confidence. The most fascinating use of hypnosis and the reason Paul will be hypnotized is to use hypnosis to solve a crime – forensic hypnosis.

Forensic hypnosis has been used in some high profile cases such as the Boston Strangler, Ted Bundy, and Sam Sheppard. First of all, forensic hypnosis must be conducted by a trained professional who knows how to get information without leading a witness or accidentally implanting a suggestion or memory. Secondly, very exacting procedures and standards must be met during the hypnosis session. Last, when the case goes to court the jury must consider the four dangers of hypnosis in deciding the case. The four dangers are: (1) suggestibility – a hypnotist could "suggest" a race, height, eye color, etcetera which the subject accepts as truth; (2) loss of critical judgment – under hypnosis personal beliefs and prejudices may influence how an event is interpreted during recall; (3) confabulation or lies – a person who has a reason to lie may create lies while under hypnosis or gaps in the memory may be filled in with false material that supports a self-interest; (4) memory cementing – a false memory seems so real to the witness that he develops false confidence in it. If all of the above conditions are met, then hypnosis testimony may be used in court and has in many cases been used successfully.

One such successful case is that of serial killer Ted Bundy. Theodore Robert Bundy was the handsome, charming stranger who stalked young grade school and college girls and confessed to killing more than thirty of them. No one knows for sure how many women Ted Bundy killed starting in 1974.

On January 15, 1978 Nita Neary returned to her Chi Omega sorority house and saw a man running down the stairs, a club in his hand. She saw the profile of his face. Four girls living in the house had been brutally beaten; two of them died. One week later Nita was put into a hypnotic state and questioned. She selected a photo of Ted Bundy from a photo line-up.

Approximately one month later, on February 9, 1978, a man in a white van abducted, brutalized, and killed twelve-year-old Kimberly Leach. Clarence Anderson was the one eyewitness to the abduction which took place near Kimberly’s school. Anderson underwent hypnosis twice to refresh his memory. Thereafter, he identified the man in the white van as none other than Ted Bundy, and the young girl as Kimberly Leach.

After two escapes from prison and eleven years of trials and appeals, Ted Bundy was convicted for two counts of first degree murder in the Chi Omega killings and a death sentence for the murder of Kimberly Leach. Theodore Bundy finally confessed to nearly thirty murders and was electrocuted in February 1989 surrounded by cheering and celebrations including fireworks and "Burn Bundy Burn" t-shirt sales.

In the case of Sam Sheppard, forensic hypnosis saved an innocent man. Sam Sheppard’s case is the one on which the movie The Fugitive was based. Convicted of murdering his wife, even though he consistently claimed that a "bushy-haired" intruder did it, Dr. Sam Sheppard was later legally exonerated of all charges.

It began in July 1954 when Marilyn Sheppard went to bed, leaving her husband Sam downstairs where he fell asleep watching television. Sam awoke to his wife’s calls and found her being beaten by an intruder. He struggled with the man and was knocked unconscious by a blow to the head. The media’s spin of the events included an "affair" and rumors of Sam’s "dark side" which resulted in a conviction.

After ten years in jail and various appeals, Sam Sheppard’s case returned to court. His defense was conducted by the now famous and brilliant trial lawyer, F. Lee Bailey. Throughout the trial F. Lee Bailey was able to convince the jurors that the original police investigation had been sloppy, ignoring evidence such as a cigarette butt in the toilet although no one in the house smoked, and that no motive had been established for why Dr. Sheppard would kill his wife. Dr. Sheppard had also been examined under hypnosis. He described the attacker and remembered feeling his neck crushed under someone’s foot and hearing someone talk about whether to kill him. He said the person walked with a limp. The juror’s votes in the case were for acquittal.

The decision to use hypnosis in the case of Albert DeSalvo, a.k.a. the Boston Strangler is unique and controversial. Thirteen women were killed in the Boston area from the summer of 1962 to January 1964, all victims of a serial killer who liked to sexually molest and kill the women in their apartments by strangling them with articles of their clothing. None of the killings gave any indication of forced entry, which means the women had let the killer into their homes. Five police jurisdictions eventually became involved, interviewing over 30,000 people, collecting thousands of pieces of evidence including hundreds of thousands of documents.

In 1961, Albert DeSalvo had been arrested for posing as a modeling agent, knocking on women’s doors. Those women who were interested had allowed him inside where he measured them; some had sex with him. He changed his methods, and in 1964 was arrested for entering women’s apartments and raping them. He would either talk or force his way in and caress the woman. Sometimes he would have sex with her. He claimed he never had sex if the woman was unwilling.

The police psychiatrist believed that Albert DeSalvo was moving through psychosexual stages, in which murder of the women was the next logical progression. Albert DeSalvo confessed the crimes to defense lawyer, F. Lee Bailey, claiming he was the Boston Strangler. After more than fifty hours of questioning, Bailey was convinced Albert DeSalvo was telling the truth. Part of the interrogation included putting DeSalvo under hypnosis. While hypnotized, DeSalvo described the murder of one of the women, Evelyn Corbin. During his session he was able to give details that he couldn’t have known unless Evelyn Corbin had told him herself, including information about her medical condition and a warning from her doctor to not have sex. Descriptions of other murders and the women involved had similar results, enough to convince the police detectives.

Forensic hypnosis was used in the Robert Kennedy assassination and the kidnapping of Jimmy Hoffa, as well as other high-profile cases. But forensic hypnosis isn’t just used for high-profile or famous court cases. It has been used hundreds of times for more everyday kinds of crimes from convenience store robberies to bank stick-ups to rapes and child molestation cases.

So let’s get back to Paul, our hypnotism subject. Today Paul is being hypnotized to help solve the mystery behind the death of an Atlanta socialite. Nikki Sills fell to her death from her seventeenth story apartment building. As a witness Paul could possibly remember under hypnosis whether he saw her jump, accidentally fall, or get pushed over. If she were pushed, his evidence and description of the culprit could solve her murder. The difference between Paul’s case and the others above is that Paul’s case is fiction, part of the novel Runner’s High, but the premise remains the same for both fiction and reality. For investigators and police alike, forensic hypnosis provides a valuable investigative tool in conjunction with other evidence, and aids them in their quest to find the guilty party