End of road for narco-analysis tests?

The year was 2002. The guest for the day at the Bangalore Science Forum — a 40-year-old,annual,month-long science convention — was the long-standing director of the Forensic Science Laboratory....

Written by Johnson T A | Bangalore | Published:February 28, 2009 11:56 pm

The year was 2002. The guest for the day at the Bangalore Science Forum — a 40-year-old,annual,month-long science convention — was the long-standing director of the Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL) of the Karnataka Police Dr B M Mohan.

There had already been reports of human rights groups questioning the use of barbiturates to lull suspects into answering police queries in the Godhra train fire probe in Gujarat — as part of a largely untried method called the ‘truth serum’ test. There were also reports of a clandestine return to ‘truth serum’ or narco-analysis tests in the United States to elicit information from suspected terrorists in the aftermath of 9/11 — despite the tests not receiving official validation for over seven decades.

In Karnataka,it was a period when forest brigand and poacher Veerappan was running amok in the borders with Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Memories of the long-drawn-out kidnap drama in 2000 of Kannada actor Dr Rajkumar were still fresh. The police were red-faced over its decade-long inability to get near Veerappan.

Third-degree methods used routinely to elicit information from suspects in the past could not be easily employed any longer as human rights violations were under close watch.

Against this backdrop Dr B M Mohan dropped a bombshell at the science forum in the course of his talk on forensic science methodologies used at his lab. He told the gathering of largely science students and teachers that the Karnataka Forensic Science Laboratory had begun full-fledged use of new technologies like truth serum tests and brain mapping or P-300 tests and had achieved some success.

One of the success stories he spoke of was a ‘truth serum’ test on a Veerappan associate arrested by the Karnataka Special Task Force that had revealed several links of the brigand,including hideouts and connections to local politicians. “I would not have spoken about the methods in detail had I known that there were journalists in the audience,” he later admitted.

From being a traditional forensic science lab that helped police investigations by finding and developing hard,tangible,verifiable,physical,biological and chemical evidence,the FSL began straying into the more nebulous territory of forensic psychology around 2000 when the lab recruited a forensic psychologist for the first time.

Dr S Malini,the forensic psychologist first employed by the lab on an annual contract,had trained under C R Mukundan,a former psychology professor at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS). She adapted techniques like narco-analysis,typically used in treating mental illness,for criminal investigations. Over the last five years,the forensic science laboratory at Bangalore had become synonymous with Dr Malini,narco-analysis and brain-mapping — with investigators from across the country coming to the lab with requests to carry out tests.

The inflexion point in the lab’s fame graph is widely believed to have been the 2003-04 narco-analysis tests on the multi-crore fake stamp paper racketeer Abdul Karim Telgi. Revelations by Telgi,including his associations with politicians and the police,were widely viewed in the country after video recordings of tests found its way to television channels.

Despite not validating the success rates of the techniques through scientific methods or by publishing papers on the subject,Dr Mohan and Dr Malini travelled far and wide spreading word about the new methodologies at conferences and seminars,claiming mastery unparalleled by other labs using the same techniques.

The FSL projected the new techniques as its flagship endeavours,despite critics like the former director of the Tamil Nadu Forensic Science Lab P Chandrashekhar

often calling the new methods a “pseudo-science”.

In December 2008,when investigations by top officials of the Karnataka Police began unravelling details of media leaks of test results and discrepancies in documentary proof produced by Dr Malini for her permanent employment in 2007,the Karnataka FSL had a narco-analysis waiting list running into the year 2010.

At the station level,the police in Karnataka typically held out the threat of the truth serum test against every suspect they detained. Real investigations and evidence gathering suffered in the bargain. The poor and illiterate,however,revealed the truth at the mere mention of being subjected to the truth test. Only two politically connected persons — former Karnataka Congress minister Roshan Baig’s brother Rehan Baig,who is an accused in the Telgi fake stamp paper racket,and a former AIADMK MLA Selvi Murugesan accused of killing her son-in-law — managed to avoid being subjected to the tests by refusing to provide the mandatory consent.

With its rising fame,the forensic lab under Dr Mohan’s leadership also began seeking autonomy from the police department in recent times. There were increasingly few interactions between the police top brass and lab officials despite the police having supervisory powers over the lab.

In what is widely believed to be a key turning point in the FSL’s stand off with the police department,a proposal was placed in mid-2008 before the state Government for autonomy and separation of the laboratory from the state police. The proposal drew criticism from police officers. They argued that autonomy for the lab would leave the police force with no forensic lab of its own. Following vociferous protests by the entire top rank of the Karnataka Police,the proposal was shelved.

The BJP government’s decision on February 25 to act upon a two-month-old recommendation made by the former director general of police R Srikumar for discharge of Dr Malini from service has now raised questions over the continuation of narco-analysis and brain-mapping tests at the laboratory. With the present police set up in Karnataka more inclined towards conventional scientific crime investigation methods,the use of forensic psychology tests are increasingly expected to be an exception rather than the rule.

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