The Lie Detector and Wonder Woman – Quirks and Quacks of Legal History

From 1923, until the United States Supreme Court decided the Daubert case in 1993, Frye was cited as “controlling authority” on questions of the admissibility of scientific opinion testimony and test results. The decision is infuriatingly cryptic and unhelpful as to background or context of the specific case, as well as how it might be applied to future controversies. Of the 669 words, these are typically cited as the guiding “rule” with respect to expert witness opinion testimony:

“Just when a scientific principle or discovery crosses the line between the experimental and demonstrable stages is difficult to define. Somewhere in this twilight zone the evidential force of the principle must be recognized, and while the courts will go a long way in admitting expert testimony deduced from a well recognized scientific principle or discovery, the thing from which the deduction is made must be sufficiently established to have gained general acceptance in the particular field in which it belongs.”

Frye v. United States, 293 F. 1013, 1014 (D.C. Cir. 1923).

As most scholars of evidence realize, the back story of the Frye case is rich and bizarre. The expert witness involved, William Marston, was a lawyer and scientist, who had made advances in a systolic blood pressure cuff to be used as a “lie detector.” Marston was also an advocate of free love and, with his wife and his mistress, the inventor of Wonder Woman and her lasso of truth.

Jill Lepore, a professor of history in Harvard University, has written an historical account of Marston and his colleagues. Jill Lepore, The Secret History of Wonder Woman (N.Y. 2014). More recently, Lepore has written an important law review on the historical and legal record of the Frye case, which is concealed in the terse 669 words of the Court of Appeals’ opinion. Jill Lepore, “On Evidence: Proving Frye as a Matter of Law, Science, and History,” 124 Yale L.J. 1092 (2015).

Lepore’s history is an important gloss on the Frye case, but her paper points to a larger, more prevalent, chronic problem in the law, which especially afflicts judicial decisions of scientific or technical issues. As an historian, Lepore is troubled, as we all should be, by the censoring, selecting, suppressing, and distorting of facts that go into judicial decisions. From cases and their holdings, lawyers are taught to infer rules that guide their conduct at the bar, and their clients’ conduct and expectations, but everyone requires fair access to the evidence to determine what facts are material to decision.

As Professor Lepore puts it:

“Marston is missing from Frye because the law of evidence, case law, the case method, and the conventions of legal scholarship — together, and relentlessly — hide facts.”

Id. at 1097. Generalizing from Marston and the Frye case, Lepore notes that:

“Case law is like that, too, except that it doesn’t only fail to notice details; it conceals them.”

Id. at 1099.

Lepore documents that Marston’s psychological research was rife with cherry picking and data dredging. Id. at 1113-14. Despite his degree magna cum laude in philosophy from Harvard College, his L.L.B from Harvard Law School (with no particular distinction), and his Ph.D. from Harvard University, Marston was not a rigorous scientist. In exploring the historical and legal record, not recounted in the Frye decision, Lepore’s history provides a wonderful early example, of what has become a familiar phenomenon of modern litigation: an expert witness who seeks to achieve acceptance for a dubious opinion or device in the courtroom rather than in the court of scientific opinion. Id. at 1122. The trial judge in Frye’s murder case, Justice McCoy, was an astute judge, and quite modest in his ability to evaluate the validity of Marston’s opinions, but he had more than sufficient perspicacity to discern that Marston’s investigation was “wildly unscientific,” with no control groups. Id. at 1135. The trial record of defense counsel’s proffer, and Justice McCoy’s rulings and comments from the bench, reproduced in Lepore’s article, anticipate and predict much of the scholarship surrounding both Frye and Daubert cases.

Lepore complains that the important historical record, including Marston’s correspondence with Professor Wigmore, the criminal fraud charges against Marston, and the correspondence of Frye’s lawyers, lies “filed, undigitized” in various archives. Id. at 1150. Although Professor Lepore tirelessly cites to internet URL sources when available, she could have easily made the primary historical materials available for all, using readily available internet technology. Lepore’s main thesis should encourage lawyers and law scholars to look beyond appellate decisions as the data for legal analysis.

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