Graham Newman, an attorney with Chappell Smith & Arden, P.A., argued before the South Carolina Supreme Court on January 14, 2015 in a case that could alter the rules of admissibility of polygraph evidence.
The case, State v. Samuel, arises from charges of Homicide By Child Abuse stemming from allegations that a young woman caused the death of an infant by shaking. Newman previously tried the case alongside Columbia attorney Dick Harpootlian in November of 2010. In pretrial motions, the two attorneys obtained an order from the trial court excluding a statement made by the defendant during the course of a polygraph examination conducted by the City of Columbia Police Department. Rather than proceeding with trial, the State immediately appealed the pretrial order.
The appeal centers upon a constitutional conundrum created by a conflict between state and federal law. South Carolina law holds that polygraph evidence is inadmissible due to its scientific unreliability and the prejudicial effect a polygraph being presented as a “lie detector” may have on a jury. Federal law stemming from the Fifth Amendment, meanwhile, holds that the “totality of the circumstances” of a criminal defendant’s statement to police must be presented to a jury so that the jury may determine if the statement was coerced in any way. Newman argued below that the inadmissibility of polygraph evidence in South Carolina necessarily prohibits the admission of any statements procured during the use of a polygraph. Otherwise, the trial court’s admission of such a statement–without evidence of the polygraph serving as the context in which it was given–would violate federal law’s “totality of the circumstances” requirement. The trial court agreed.
On appeal, both Newman and the State agreed that polygraph evidence might be admitted–as evidence going to an issue other than truth–if certain precautions are put in place to avoid jury prejudice. Without the creation of such an exception to the otherwise blanket rule of polygraph inadmissibility, Newman argued, the defendant’s statement in this case must remain excluded from evidence.
The Supreme Court’s opinion will decide whether to expand its body of law on the subject of polygraph evidence admissibility to address the facts of this case and others like it.