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By Sam Simon

T he classic police interrogation

scene starts with two officers march-
ing into a room. They flop a stack of
crime scene photos down in front of a
suspect and claim he knows the scene
and recognizes the images. But there By reading brainwaves, investigators are
he sits, stone faced and unshaken,
able to access suspects’ minds
denying any knowledge of the crime.
The officers hoped the images would
evoke a reaction they could go on, but
he gave them nothing. Nothing they
could recognize — until now.
A new forensic tool is helping
officers access a suspect’s mind to
determine what information is indeed
stored in the brain.
This new innovation, Brain
Fingerprinting, is able to determine
whether a person has certain informa-
tion stored in his memory — such
as a criminal act. By reading a spe-
cific brain response — called a P300
MERMER (Memory and Encoding
Related Multi-facet Electronic
Response), which the creator of Brain
Fingerprinting Dr. Lawrence Farwell
discovered — this innovation has
played an integral role in freeing an
innocent man from jail and securing a
confession to an unsolved murder (see
Page 98). Implemented in hundreds
of other cases, Brain Fingerprinting
is emerging as a powerful and highly
accurate forensic tool.

The “Ah-ha” response

DNA, fingerprints and other forms
of forensic evidence are currently at
the peak of their practice due in part
to popular television shows and their
ability to help solve crimes. But what
may not be as well known is that most
evidence of this type is only applicable
in an estimated 1 percent of cases. The irrelevants, as the name “This way we can tell if a person
The use of Brain Fingerprinting, implies, have nothing to do with the knows the details of the crime that he
however, is estimated to be applicable subject, crime scene or crime. “These would have no way of knowing with-
in 50 and upwards of 75 percent of are details that could have been rel- out being there,” says Farwell.
cases. evant details about the crime that are
Instead of collecting physical Lifting brain fingerprints
artifacts as evidence, Farwell uses a Brain Fingerprinting There are two general applications
computer to record the brain’s activity for which Brain Fingerprinting can
in response to stimuli is able to determine be applied. The first concerns test-
presented to the subject.
“There’s a particular brain
whether a person has ing concealed information regarding
events that have already occurred. Dr.
response called a P300 MERMER,” certain information Drew Richardson, a 25-year veteran,
explains Farwell, a Harvard gradu- now retired, of the FBI who acted
ate and neuroscientist. “A person has stored in his memory as one of the bureau’s top forensic
this response when they take note of — such as a crime. scientists, explains this involves exam-
something significant.” ining suspects of a crime or potential
The Brain Fingerprinting test is equally plausible for an innocent sus- witnesses to see if they have informa-
able to determine whether a person pect or a suspect that knows nothing tion stored in their brains that would
has knowledge about a crime or other about the crime,” explains Farwell, generally not be known by the public,
type of information by recording and “but they happen not to be correct but would be known by somebody
comparing the brain’s response to details.” These will have a different who either witnessed or participated
three types of visual stimuli: targets, response pattern than the targets do. in the crime.
probes and irrelevants. The stimuli Mixed in with the targets and The second application is to
consists of words or pictures that are irrelevants are probes — items that determine if someone is associated
flashed on a computer screen in front will be recognizable as salient features with a group. This capability is what
of the subject for approximately 3/10 of the crime to somebody that was prompted the FBI to aid in funding
of a second at a time. there and knows the details, but not for the research and development of
The target stimuli provide a con- to somebody who is unaware of the this technology.
trol for the testers. Targets are the specifics of the crime. If the response Richardson, who acts as vice
information crime testers are certain to a probe stimuli matches the pattern president for Forensic Operations
the suspect knows. For example, if that a target produces, then there is with Brain Fingerprinting Labs,
a suspect has been told details of a evidence the information of the crime and Farwell first worked together in
crime and investigators are sure he is stored in the testee’s brain. the 1990s at the FBI academy. The
knows them, those facts could be The Brain Fingerprinting test takes Brain Fingerprint testing conducted
used as targets. “When the target the response to target stimuli and uses was centered around determining
stimuli is presented, we know the it as the model for the response a sub- who in a group of people were FBI
suspect will have a brain response ject’s mind will give when presented graduates and who were new agent
indicating he recognizes it,” says with stimuli that is stored in the brain. trainees.
Farwell. “The brain will essentially By comparing the response patterns A list of 25 words, acronyms and
say ‘Ah-ha, I recognize that.’ ” This is of probes and irrelevants, the test can phrases relating to the graduates
the P300 brain pattern that indicates determine with a high degree of cer- instruction or way of life were col-
the subject recognizes a word or pic- tainty what information is stored in lected to act as the probes. One of
ture. The subject will have a similar the subject’s brain. If the response of the items used was FD302. To most
response when presented with other the probes are similar to the targets, people this doesn’t mean anything.
stimuli that is stored in his brain, and then the information is present. If it is But to an FBI agent, it’s the govern-
these responses can be recognized by similar to the irrelevants, the informa- ment designation for the piece of
a computer. tion is not. paper that is used to record investiga-
Dr. Lawrence Farwell administers a
Brain Fingerprinting test to JB Grinder.

tive information, subsequently record

into file and ultimately testify if it
comes to trial. FD302 immediately
stands out and rings a bell with an
FBI agent, and using this as well
as numerous other probes, the test
was able to determine with complete
accuracy who was an FBI agent. a person’s disappearance could be through mountains of court docu-
“If we can do this with the FBI, a murder or simply a runaway. Not ments to figure out what the person
we can do this with organized crime; being able to know what crime or any does and doesn’t know.
the KGB, or its successor SVR; and specifics to test for, this test could not Using Brain Fingerprinting early
now with terrorist groups, Al Qaeda be used in such a case. on also can help speed up the inves-
and so forth,” says Richardson. Similarly in a sexual assault tigative process. If there is a group
case, everyone may agree on exactly of suspects, the innocent parties
It’s either there or it isn’t what happened, but they disagree will likely be willing to take a Brain
This test does not, however, prove on the intent of the party. Brain Fingerprint test and show they do
a person’s innocence or guilt. It deter- Fingerprinting doesn’t indicate intent; not have critical knowledge the per-
mines whether the person has infor- it only tests whether the subject petrator of the crime would have.
mation about the crime stored in his recalls the unique details Detectives are then able to focus the
brain. Similar to DNA, the sample of the crime. resources of the investigation toward
is given to a scientist, and following Another case where it would not those who are reluctant to take the
a series of tests, it is determined if be applicable is if a person already test or have shown to have knowledge
the samples match. In this case the knows every conceivable detail the of the crime.
information stored in the subject’s pre-test investigation can find about “Although admissible in court,
brain either matches the details of the the crime. “If somebody has already Brain Fingerprinting doesn’t have to
crime or it doesn’t. been convicted, they may know get to that point,” says Farwell. “We
Brain Fingerprinting also everything about the crime that we can use it to point to the right sus-
has nothing to do with lie detec- can find out, so we can’t structure pects, illuminate people and rule out
tion. Unlike lie detection, Brain a Brain Fingerprint test,” states individuals as suspects.”
Fingerprinting has been found to be Farwell. “In order to structure a test,
admissible in court. Further more, lie we need probes — the items the What you know can hurt you
detection works on the basis of emo- individual denies knowing that are In many instances a subject may
tional stress response where Brain specific details about the crime.” know details of a crime from news
Fingerprinting simply measures if a The earlier in a case a Brain accounts or being interrogated.
subject knows the details of a crime. Fingerprinting test can be applied, Those details would not be used
Therefore, this test would not work the better, says Farwell. “One hour as probe stimuli during the Brain
as a general screening tool. It could after the crime has been committed, Fingerprinting test. “Immediately
not be used to test job applicants on the perpetrator knows everything before the test, we interview the indi-
various habitual behaviors, drug use, about the crime and an innocent sus- vidual and make sure what he’s tell-
falsification of an application, etc. pect doesn’t know anything about the ing us is that these are details about
There also are certain types of crime.” He adds, once the individual the crime he doesn’t know,” says
cases where Brain Fingerprinting has been arrested or brought in for Farwell.
will not be applicable. Since Brain questioning, he’ll know a little bit To determine what to use as
Fingerprinting detects a record of about the crime, even if he’s innocent. stimuli and what details to question
the crime stored in the brain, inves- Administering the test before the subject on, an investigation is
tigators need to have a clear idea of trial also requires less resources done before the Brain Fingerprinting
the specifics of a crime. The case of since investigators won’t have to go test is administered. The investigation
determines the salient details about
the crime, what to test for (probes) An innocent man’s story
and what the subject knows are the The first case where Brain Fingerprinting was admitted in court
details of the crime (targets). was the case of Terry Harrington in the state of Iowa. He had been
convicted of murder 23 years previous to the test and the entire
The investigative team will ques-
time claimed he was innocent. Brain Fingerprinting showed that
tion the subject and ask if he has he didn’t know salient details about the crime, and in the end
knowledge about the crime and the he was exonerated and released. There were other legal issues
details such as the murder weapon, involved in his release; Brain Fingerprinting was not the sole fac-
type of car driven, make-up of the tor, but it did play a major role in showing Harrington did not
crime scene, etc. If he says he doesn’t have a record of that crime stored in his brain.
Dr. Lawrence Farwell also went back to the only alleged wit-
know what the murder weapon
ness in the crime that had testified that he saw Harrington commit
was, he would have no idea if it was the murder. When confronted with the Brain Fingerprint results
a bat, knife, gun, etc. During the and after some time, he said he didn’t see Harrington do it, wasn’t
test, the subject would be instructed there and didn’t know anything about it. The man stated that he
that he is going to see the murder made the entire story up because he was afraid he was going to
weapon flashed on the screen along get convicted of the crime since he also was a prime suspect.
with other items. “If at this point
he doesn’t recognize the weapon as
A murderer’s story
being significant in this context, then In another case that happened prior to the Harrington case,
Brain Fingerprinting worked on the side of the prosecution against
we have evidence that he in fact does
JB Grinder, who was a prime suspect in the murder of Julie Helton
not know what the murder weapon in Macon, Missouri. Grinder had told many stories, some about
is,” says Farwell. his participation in the crime and others not. The sheriff wanted
Even though many murder Farwell to sort out the facts using Brain Fingerprinting and deter-
weapons are items encountered in mine an objective indication as to which story was the truth.
everyday life, the brain has a unique Farwell found the story that matched the one in Grinder’s brain
was the one in which he committed the crime. One week later, he
response depending on the relation-
pled guilty in exchange for life imprisonment. In this case Brain
ship of stored information. Farwell Fingerprinting was instrumental in solving the case without having
explains that things are significant to to go to court because of the man’s guilty plea.
us in context and its like a multiple
choice test for the brain. A person
may use a steak knife every night, he
may go hunting with a rifle or shoot- yeah, I think it looks like he knows ence of a controlled substance. So
ing with a pistol, but in regards to a it,’ ” says Farwell. “It doesn’t depend how does this affect the responses in
crime, only one of these is significant. on my subjective judgment or some- a Brain Fingerprinting test? Farwell
“If he knows what the murder weap- one else’s.” explains people remember very
on is, his brain says ‘that’s it,’ ” says Though an information present salient activities or events in their
Farwell. “If the brain doesn’t know, it determination is done objectively, lives. Even if someone is a serial
won’t respond the same way, and the the brainwaves can be produced on a killer and only commits a few mur-
computer detects which response is computer screen to show the differ- ders in his life, it’s a big event and
received from ence in responses to the target, probe people tend to remember that.
the individual.” and irrelevant stimuli (see illustration As a real-life example, JB
After flashing all stimuli, the on Page 102). Grinder was under the influence
computer provides an objective deter- of drugs and alcohol at the time
mination of information present or Altered states of mind he murdered Julie Helton. He was
information absent, and a statistical As anyone in law enforcement also on therapeutic drugs — anti-
confidence of that determination. “I knows, a majority of crimes are psychotic medication — at the
don’t look at a screen and say, ‘Oh committed while under the influ- time of the Brain Fingerprint test,
and Farwell notes he got very clear tive team will collect the details of just as Brain Fingerprinting was ruled
responses from him. the crime and administer the Brain admissible in the Harrington case, it
It should be kept in mind a Brain Fingerprint test. will continue to be ruled admissible,”
Fingerprinting result is an objective, However, those departments that says Farwell. In the Harrington case
scientific account of the contents of want to implement this on a larger (see Page 98), there was extensive
people’s memories. Memory is not scale would want to use their own peo- evidence and expert testimony pre-
perfect, and judges and juries have ple. It is going to be more cost-effec- sented from both for a full day, he says.
to take that into account. “If the test tive and efficient to have department Provided with the test’s record, the
returns a positive result — an infor- personnel trained to administer Brain judge ruled it was admissible. Even the
mation present result — then, for Fingerprint tests. expert on the other side admitted the
whatever reason, the person knows “Initially we would simply be out- science was impeccable. “His words for
the details about the crime,” says side consultants,” says Farwell. “As we the science were ‘totally perfect’ and
Farwell. “These are details the subject progress we would train people not even I don’t say that,” says Farwell.
would have no reason knowing unless only how to conduct a test, but also Richardson also sees this technol-
he committed the crime — that’s solid how to collect evidence that could best ogy emerging in a similar manner as
evidence.” be used to make a Brain Fingerprint other forensic sciences have. “I think
Any time a negative result is test effective.” Training would be fur- that, as with any technique, it will rise
returned in any science, it must be nished to investigators or detectives or fall on its own merits and should
interpreted with caution. The same who would develop the details for be introduced into court and have the
is true when not getting a match on a test, as well as a small number of particulars looked at,” says Richardson.
fingerprints or DNA. It doesn’t neces- people who would become technically “I fully believe it is a sound technology
sarily prove the person is innocent, competent in how to conduct the test. and when done properly will meet the
it just provides evidence that can be Farwell expects Brain Fingerprinting various tests that it should properly
helpful. to become universally applied in the face.”
law enforcement field, especially early Unlike a fingerprint or DNA
The spread of in the investigative process when there sample, a criminal’s brain is always
Brain Fingerprinting are still a number of suspects and an at the scene, planning, executing and
There are currently two ways for agency wants to know where to direct recording the crime. Because of this,
a department to incorporate Brain resources. the technology has the potential to be
Fingerprinting in their investiga- Farwell also believes, as happened applicable in an overwhelming number
tions. The first way is to hire Brain with DNA, Brain Fingerprinting will of cases. Now when an officer presents
Fingerprinting Laboratories as outside spend years getting fully established in a pile of photos to a suspect, he’ll get
consultants. Farwell and an investiga- the court system. “We’re very confident just the response he is looking for. ■

The image on the

left is JB Grinder’s
responses to
crime scene
The image on
the right is Terry
response to
crime scene
Target (red),
irrelevant (green)
and probe (blue)

Electronically reprinted with permission from Law Enforcement Technology magazine • September 2005