Forensic Hypnosis for Memory Enhancement
What would you think if a method that seemed to enhance recollection could assist in arresting an offender and even contribute to a capital sentence? The courts are divided on this issue, and memory isn't all it's cracked up to be, yet hypnosis has played a significant part in many criminal cases, including Sam Sheppard and Ted Bundy . One of the most interesting and controversial investigative angles was the decision to hypnotize Albert DeSalvo, a.k.a., the Boston Strangler.
Between June 14, 1962 and January 4, 1964, thirteen women in the Boston area were victims of a serial killer. All but one were murdered in their apartments, most were sexually molested, and almost all were strangled with articles of clothing. A few bore the signature of the man: a decorative bow tied around their necks. With no signs of forced entry, the women apparently knew their assailant or voluntarily let him into their homes. Since most of the victims led quiet, modest lives, this turn of events was alarming.
Of the eleven "official" stranglings, six of the victims were between the ages of 55 and 75. Two other possible victims were 85 and 69. The remaining five victims were considerably younger, ranging from 19 to 23.
Police Commissioner Edmund McNamara warned women to lock their doors. He canceled police vacations and transferred all detectives to Homicide. They investigated the area's known sex offenders and violent former mental patients, because they believed they were looking for a madman who hated his mother. A former FBI man, McNamara called on the Bureau to teach a seminar on sex crimes for his fifty best detectives.
Some 2,350 police would eventually become involved, interviewing a total of 36,000 people. Hundreds of men were fingerprinted and forty given lie-detector tests. Six flunked.
Since this case spanned five police jurisdictions, the Massachusetts Attorney General, Edward Brooke, put together a "Strangler Bureau" to coordinate all activities related to the string of murders. The Strangler Bureau had to collect, organize and assimilate over thirty-seven thousand documents, involving over 800,000 pieces of paper. A forensic medical committee developed a profile of the kind of person who would commit the murders. They saw important differences between the murder spree of the older women and that of the younger women, and for that reason, they thought it was unlikely that one person was responsible for all of the killings. In other words, there were copycats—possibly more than one.
Dr. Kenefick offered a profile of what his team believed the police should be looking for in the primary perpetrator:
He was at least 30 years old, probably a good deal older. He is neat, orderly, and punctual. He either works with his hands, or has a hobby involving handiwork. He most probably is single, separated or divorced. He would not impress the average observer as crazy...He has no close friends of either sex.
This profile was contradicted by consulting psychiatrist, James Brussel, who accurately had described New York's "mad bomber." He insisted that all of the victims had been killed by the same person, who was progressing through psychosexual stages.
On November 5, 1964, Albert DeSalvo was arrested for entering women's apartments and raping them. He was known as the Green Man because he wore green work clothes. He would force his way in and order a female resident at knifepoint to take off her clothes. He caressed her and then if she wanted it, he had sex with her. Later he insisted that he never had an unwilling victim, and often he apologized before he left.
This was not his first arrest. A couple of years before the strangling murders began, a series of strange sex offenses began in the Cambridge area. A man in his late twenties would knock at the door of an apartment and if a young woman answered, he would introduce himself: "My name is Johnson and I work for a modeling agency. Your name was given to us by someone who thought you would make a good model."
Apparently many women were interested, even flattered, and they allowed him to measure them. Eventually, some of the women contacted the police, although more than a few ended up in bed with him. He was caught in 1961. After that, he changed his MO and became the Green Man. It was after this second arrest that he accepted yet a third moniker.
One day DeSalvo came forward to F. Lee Bailey, a defense lawyer, with a shocking confession: He was the Boston Strangler. Bailey called Lieutenant Donovan of the Boston Police Department and suggested that he might have a suspect for him, but first he wanted questions from Donovan for purposes of verification.
Bailey says of that interview: "...I became certain that the man sitting in that dimly lit room with me was the Boston Strangler...Anyone experienced in interrogation learns to recognize the difference between a man speaking from life and a man telling a story that he either has made up or has gotten from another person. DeSalvo gave me every indication that he was speaking from life."
Questioning DeSalvo on all of the murders and checking out every detail of his confession was critical. Finally, on September 29, 1965, with more than fifty hours of tapes and 2,000 pages of transcription, the interrogation was complete.
Part of the process had involved putting DeSalvo into a trance. Bailey hired Dr. William J. Bryan, Jr., from the American Institute of Hypnosis in Los Angeles. While several witnesses looked on, Bryan used a combination of trance and free association to get DeSalvo talking (he called this method hypnoanalysis). He moved his forefinger like a pendulum back and forth in front of DeSalvo's face, assuring him that he would soon feel peaceful. DeSalvo closed his eyes and breathed more deeply. Bryan raised the suspect's arm and said several times that it would feel cold and numb. To check DeSalvo's trance, he shoved a needle into the "numb" arm. DeSalvo did not flinch.
Then Bryan pushed him more deeply into a trance and had him visualize a calendar. He hypnotically regressed him in time to the date of one of the murders. DeSalvo described going into Evelyn Corbin's apartment. He imitated her voice asking him who had sent him to check on her bathroom. Then, with a lot of suggestive urging from Bryan, he described the murder. During this description, he screamed and cried and talked about his daughter. Then the doctor told him that he would dream that night and brought him out of the trance.
The next day, DeSalvo described the dream: It was about the murder of Evelyn Corbin, although his written account of it stopped in mid-sentence. Again the hypnotist put DeSalvo into a trance and this time fed him the details that he wanted to hear. DeSalvo resisted the doctor's interpretations.
Despite Bryan's incessant leading, the detectives who heard the tape were impressed, because DeSalvo had said that Corbin had told him that her doctor had warned her to avoid sexual intercourse. That was true enough, and how could DeSalvo have known it unless she had told him? This was one of the many things that eventually convinced the task force that they had finally arrested—and stopped—the Boston Strangler. Since he never came to trial for the murders, it isn't known how the court might have perceived the hypnotic sessions. At that time, such evidence was generally considered inadmissible.
Yet it was—and is—rare to use this technique with a defendant. More often, it has been used as a tool to ensure accuracy in eyewitness testimony. The most popular techniques involve past-memory regression (as with DeSalvo) and memory enhancement. Let's see how it works for criminal investigations.