I can hear you now: “No innocent person would sit quietly and watch herself be charged with capital murder.”
People are complex and mysterious. Most of us take what other people say at face value, because we always say what we mean and mean what we say.
Oh? Actually, I believe we accept what other people tell us as generally true, because a life of complete skepticism would be very complex and frightening.
But not everyone takes what other people say at face value. Law enforcement never takes what people say at face value. People who go into law enforcement are not only congenitally cynical, they are trained to expect everyone to lie.
Catching a Liar
A couple of years ago I took an online course in lying for writers (meaning, how to depict liars realistically in fiction). The teacher was a federal law-enforcement official. From this class I learned absolutely nothing except that law enforcement officers think everyone is a liar and that they (law enforcement) are uniquely gifted at detecting liars by their facial expressions, body language, and choice of words. (Besides, as soon as the class began I realized that a good lying character has to deceive the reader and not reveal his true character until it is much too late in the plot. So, I have no idea why I thought such a course would be worthwhile.)
As Ken Adler aptly notes in The Lie Detectors: everyone thinks they can detect a lie, but actually we are guessing and are only right as often as random chance:
“In 2006, one review of the available research concluded that people can successfully sort truth-tellers from liars only 54 percent of the time, or about as well as blind guesswork. Surprisingly, the more intimately we know the deceiver, the worse we do. Even cops, judges, and psychologists—those citizens professionally licensed to sort truth-tellers from liars—don’t get it right much more than half the time.”
Succeeding as a Liar
The other side of the lie coin is that most of us aren’t very good at lying. When we tell a lie, we expect to be able to deceive and then move on. But the problem with lies is that when they are designed to deceive a specific person, someone else always knows the truth. When a lie is designed to deceive everyone, the liar has to lie again and again in order to prop up the first lie.
Very few people are skillful enough to sustain the effort.
Expert liars do exist, though. Some people spend all their lives lying. They are very smart. They know how to tell consistent lies. These people (sometimes called “pathological liars”) lie not to cover their shameful deeds but to manipulate other people. They lie to aggrandize themselves and denigrate others. Being life-long liars, they are incredibly skillful creators of believable fictions.
The Carla Hughes Trial
Law enforcement in Mississippi believed Carla Hughes lied to them—even though for the most part she lied only by omission.
I may have missed it, but I believe she told a cousin, not the cops, that the reason her revolver had no bullets in it after the murder was that she had expended them in target practice. (This is one of the most troubling lacunae in this puzzling case: in court no one other than the cousin said anything about this statement, not even the cops. Apparently no one bothered to investigate the possibility that she was telling the truth about target practice.)
Law enforcement felt that Carla Hughes lied to them, because (as they said on TruTV after the trial) they are trained to detect deception. One detective even claimed that her character witnesses (mother, father, preacher, etc.) lied about her character.
The detective claimed he knew another side of Carla: he knew she was a member of a biker gang. He claimed the people with whom she “rode” were known to be of dubious character. “Aggressive” is the word he used, I believe. He also said he did not personally interview any of these aggressive bikers, but “someone” else told him about their poor character. (Hmm, I wonder if that “someone” might have been Carla’s cheating ex-lover.)
The detective even implied that her equestrian skills showed that she was not the meek, peace-loving person she pretended to me. (Hey! Did you ever see My Friend Flicka?) I suppose he detected this subtle form of equestrian nastiness based on his police training.
Don’t forget: this is one of the detectives who concluded that the man who last saw the victim alive was telling the truth—the man who found the body, the man who had gunshot residue on his hands, the man who claimed to kneel over the bloody body but who had no blood on his clothes, the man who was cheating on the victim with at least two other women, the man who left town before the trial and promptly married another woman.
She May Not Be Telling the Truth
Carla Hughes, in my opinion, is not telling the truth about what happened. Her statements after the murder are inconsistent and strain credulity, to put it nicely. But all this means to me is that Carla Hughes is not a pathological liar or a skillful lifelong liar.
In fact, she did not tell anyone much of anything about what happened. Even her mother said on camera that she did not “have all the facts.”
I suspect the reason Carla Hughes failed to talk in her own defense is that she is smart enough to realize that she dug her own grave with the lies she did tell. She also understands the Kantian categorical imperative: having lied before, the jury would have no reason to believe her when she told the truth.
Carla Hughes had no way of substantiating truthful statements after she first lied. She could not prove that she did not empty the bullets in the gun by pumping them into the victim’s body. She could not prove what happened to the knife, because she probably does not know where it is. She could not prove that she was not the one to wear those shoes to break down the victim’s door or at bloody crime scene. (Even the law acknowledges a defendant cannot prove a negative.) And Carla could not prove exactly where she was when she made cell-phone calls from within 2.5 miles of the crime scene.
The only person who could substantiate anything she might tell the cops was her lover, a man who was striving mightily to avoid being arrested himself.
Alder’s The Lie Detectors: The History of an American Obsession
I happened to be reading Alder’s book last week when the Carla Hughes verdicts came down. It is a history of a technology, not only the technology of the lie detector apparatus, but also the whole technology of policing—everything from squad cars to “the third degree.”
The book is fascinating and one that every defense attorney should read. Alder is a scholar of the history of science, not a journalist. (He’s a professor at Northwestern University.) While he writes in a vivid, journalistic style, he also employs a rigorous methodology and supplies extensive notes and sources.
If Carla Hughes’ attorneys had read the book, I doubt they would have defended her by using the traditional “reasonable doubt” defense or by pointing an accusing finger at a specific person. I suspect they would have insisted that she tell them the truth, even if she did not want to tell the truth to the jury.
Why? Because the greatest flaw in the defense, IMHO, was that Carla Hughes’s attorneys did not tell a coherent story to the jury. Despite her stellar biography, the woman who sat behind the defense table throughout the trial did not appear to be a person of
integrity: Carla Hughes’ story for the jury did not match her life’s story. There was a big disconnect. The character witnesses appeared too late—after the guilty verdict.
No one knew that she had once before been betrayed by a man but reacted in that instance with courage, not anger.