September 5, 2008

Of child molestation and crystal balls

How much can a forensic psychologist really tell?

Defense attorneys regularly telephone me seeking an expert to testify that their client does not "fit the profile" of a child molester.

"What profile?" I want to ask. Men who molest children have no special profile. They come in all shapes and sizes.

After explaining this, I always pass on such cases.

Some forensic psychologists disagree. They think there is a profile, or that we can reliably determine the veracity of children who say they were abused.

Forensic psychologist excluded

In Louisiana, after the courthouse reopened following Hurricane Gustav, one such expert was slated to testify in the high-profile trial of church pastor Louis D. Lamonica.

The defense planned to call the forensic psychologist to tell jurors how to judge the veracity of abuse allegations made by children. No can do, ruled Judge Zoey Waguespack; the children's veracity is up to the jury to decide. Prosecutors had cited Supreme Court precedents to support that position.

The jury began deliberating yesterday. They must decide whether Lamonica molested his two young sons or falsely confessed, as the defense maintains, because he was being controlled by a self-proclaimed prophet who had tortured him, deprived him of sleep, and forced him to wear a dress and two rubber snakes.

The jurors' job won't be easy. Lamonica's sons - both now adults - testified that they were never abused. They, too, allege their confessions were the result of control by self-proclaimed prophet Lois Mowbray, who was arrested but never charged in the case. The boys testified that Mowbray controlled their mother and had her coerce the boys into accusing their father.

The bizarre case harkens back to the largely discredited satanic ritual abuse hysteria of the 1980s. In his tape-recorded confession, which was played for jurors, Lamonica talked about a child-sex ring at his Hosanna Church that practiced satanic cult rituals. Former church members also testified that the church had devolved from an established church into a Christian cult where worshippers publicly confessed and vomited to cast out the demons of sin. The allegations rocked the small town of Ponchatoula, about 40 miles northwest of New Orleans.

Ironically, the case broke when Lamonica himself walked into the local sheriff's station back in 2005 and began babbling about having molested children, taught them to have sex with each other and with a dog, and poured cat blood over the bodies of his young victims. At his trial, Lamonica testified that was all lies.

Unfortunately, the jurors won't have much in the way of science to guide them in choosing which of Lamonica's two diametrically opposed stories to believe.

But wait! High-tech mind reading in the works

While not in time to help Lamonica's jurors, scientists are feverishly working on new technologies to enable us to differentiate truth from lies. The science holds promise, they say, for identifying pedophiles based on their mental attitudes toward children.

Researchers tout the Implicit Association Test (IAT), developed by Harvard scholars to measure unconscious racism, as having the potential to sniff out pedophiles and even psychopathic murderers. (See Gray et al, 2003 and 2005.) A modified IAT called the Timed Antagonistic Response Alethiometer (TARA) can classify responders as liars or truth tellers based on the speed at which they classify sentences and "manipulate response incongruities," they claim. (See Gregg, 2007.) Other researchers have been working to adapt functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) into a lie-detection tool, with mixed results. (See Ganis et al, 2003, and Iacono & Lykken, 1999.)

The current issue of Psychological Science presents an article summarizing this research and offering a new tweak, the autobiographical IAT (aIAT), which researchers boast "outperforms currently available lie-detection techniques."

The authors concede that this and other emergent technologies do "leave important neuroethical issues unresolved." (See Wolpe et al 2005.)

You don't say.

In the forensic realm, it seems particularly problematic to equate attitudes with behavior. After all, many more men lust after children and teens than go on to commit illegal sex acts against them.

The Psychological Science article is: "How to Accurately Detect Autobiographical Events," by Giuseppe Sartori, Sara Agosta, Cristina Zogmaister, Santo Davide Ferrara, & Umberto Castiello. The abstract is available online, and the full article can be requested from the first author.

The Lamonica story, from the Advocate in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is here. You can search the newspaper's database using the keyword Lamonica for additional case coverage. A New York Times article on the original arrests is here. The Rick A. Ross Institute, which bills itself as a repository for information on cults, has much more on the Hosanna Church here.

A few of my prior related blog posts are:
Scholarly articles referenced in this post are:

Ganis, G., Kosslyn, S.M., Stose, S., Thompson, W.L., & Yurgelun-Todd, D.A. (2003). Neural correlates of different types of deception. Cerebral Cortex, 13, 830–836.

Gray, N.S., Brown, A.S., MacCulloch, M.J., Smith, J., & Snowden, R.J. (2005). An implicit test of the associations between children and sex in pedophiles. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 114, 304–308.

Gray, N.S., MacCulloch, M.J., Smith, J., Morris, M., & Snowden, R.J. (2003). Violence viewed by psychopathic murderers. Nature, 423, 497–498.

Gregg, A.I. (2007). When vying reveals lying: The Timed Antagonistic Response Alethiometer. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 21, 621–647.

Iacono, W.G., & Lykken, D.T. (1999). Update: The scientific status of research on polygraph techniques: The case against polygraph tests. In D.L. Faigman, D.H. Kaye, M.J. Saks, & J. Sanders (Eds.), Modern scientific evidence: The law and science of expert testimony (pp. 174–184). St. Paul, MN: West Publishing.

Wolpe, P.R., Foster, K.R., & Langleben, D.D. (2005). Emerging neurotechnologies for lie-detection: Promises and perils. The American Journal of Bioethics, 5 (2), 39–49.

Photo credits: ora mia and Josh Bancroft (Creative Commons license)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Lamonica has been convicted of rapeing his sons, and will be sentenced next month. He's like to go to jail for life.

It's worth noting that Lamonica is the second conviction in the Hosanna Church case. The first defendant, Trey Bernard, was convicted and jailed last year.

You may want to rethink your stance that allegations of satanic cult abuse are "hysterical". In this case, it appears that they were quite true.