Ohio Trial Court Allows Polygraph Evidence to Free Defendant

By: John Scanlan, Attorney at Law

A New York law-school graduate was acquitted of sexual battery and related charges after introducing polygraph results in his trial. Normally, polygraph tests are inadmissible at trial, but Sahil Sharma’s criminal defense attorney convinced Summit County, Ohio Judge Judy Hunter to allow his test results. According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, after being accused of having sex with a 24-year-old woman who was too drunk to consent, Sharma submitted to three polygraph tests, all of which he reportedly passed. Sharma introduced only one of the tests at his trial. Judge Hunter added her opinion that the victim’s testimony was not credible to Sharma’s polygraph evidence and found him not guilty.

Standard for Admitting Polygraph Evidence

Polygraphs are viewed by the courts as scientific evidence. Standards for admitting scientific evidence vary from state to state and in the federal courts. Traditionally, the standard is whether the evidence is “generally accepted” as credible science. See the case Frye v. United States, Case No. 293F. 1013 (Decided in the D.C. Circ. 1923).

The Frye standard can allow bad science that is generally accepted into the courtroom. The practice of phrenology, the measuring of character, personality traits, and criminality based on the shape of a defendant’s head was widely accepted in the early 1800s. Later scientific study showed it to be nonsense.

The Frye test also barred DNA evidence for many years because it had not been widely accepted long enough.

The modern standard, adopted by the federal courts, has four tests: (1) The theory has been proven by testing; (2) The testing has been positively reviewed by the scientific community; (3) The theory has an acceptable error rate: and (4) The theory has gained acceptance in the scientific community. See the case Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Case No. 509U.S.579 (1993).

The Daubert test overcomes the difficulty of the Frye standard. Simply putting new theory to rigorous scientific testing makes it admissible in court. DNA evidence became admissible immediately following scientific testing.

In a matter similar to polygraph evidence, a federal court used the Daubert standard to forbid the introduction of fingerprints into evidence. While the science of finger printing has long been accepted as credible, the judge disallowed the evidence because finger printing has never been put to rigorous scientific testing. The judge backed down, after his ruling created an uproar. Apparently, when science has been so widely accepted for so long, the Frye standard may be met.

States differ on which standard to follow. Some states still require long term acceptance of a theory, while others use the scientific testing standard. Most states do not accept polygraph evidence as admissible under either standard.

What’s Next in the Sharma Case

The prosecutor in the Sharma case appealed the judge’s ruling allowing his polygraph test as evidence, but the court of appeals refused to rule on the issue, saying that the trial was not yet finished. Now that Sharma has been found not guilty, the state may appeal the issue of allowing polygraph evidence into court. They cannot, however, appeal the Sharma’s verdict.

Such an appeal would likely separate allowing a defendant to introduce a polygraph to show he told the truth, from allowing the prosecution to use a polygraph to show he is lying.