This is a multi-part series on the failures of the Texas Department of Public Safety, who is under fire for mishandling the investigation into the Robb Elementary School Massacre.
Hypnosis can be a great help to many people who use the practice to stop smoking, lose weight, and achieve other minor self-improvement goals. However, it’s use within law enforcement is highly controversial. For four decades, the Texas Department of Public Safety employed hypnosis to solve crimes, leading to many false convictions.
In 2020, Lauren McGaughy and Dave Boucher of The Dallas Morning News published a blockbuster pair of articles looking deep into the practice of hypnosis as employed by DPS. Despite the evidence gained under hypnosis being banned in 21 states, Texas DPS used it 1,800 times over 40 years. Some of that evidence sent people to their deaths. An officer could become certified in hypnosis after a week-long course.
Five convictions obtained with testimony gathered under hypnosis were later overturned because of physical evidence. The techniques used by officers changed little since the 1970s. No regulatory board oversaw the practicing hypnotists, and no one was punished for not following ethical practices. This was a problem considering how tricky forensic hypnosis is.
“Memory can be faulty under the best of conditions,” says Houston hypnotist Dan Perez. “People can sometimes hypnotize themselves by wondering about something over and over. If they do this when they are suggestible, it can create a false memory.”
Perez called attention to recovered memories during the 1960s through the 1980s, everything from alien abductions to Satanic ritual abuse. Poor practices involving leading questions often led those hypnotized to concoct new memories with no basis in reality.
“The subconscious doesn’t know the difference between false memories and real ones,” says Perez.
Law enforcement in Texas often used hypnosis as a method of last resort, usually to account for the fact that a victim could not accurately describe their attacker or police had failed to secure evidence at a crime scene. Hypnosis was a kind of Hail Mary, and cases cracked by it made the news for the dramatic breakthroughs.
Texas DPS continued to use hypnosis until last year despite increasing scrutiny over how often it led to possible false arrests and convictions. Texas Ranger James Holland, in particular, had a reputation for dubious practices. When trails when cold, such as with the case of Larry Driskill. When the trail went cold on a 2005 murder case, Holland employed hypnosis on the victim’s boyfriend nine years later. By then, Holland had become somewhat famous for cracking cold cases involving serial killers.
The police sketch that emerged from the session was very different, leading to Driskill’s eventual arrest. From there, Holland used a variety of unethical interrogation tactics, including lies about the evidence, to get Driskill to confess to a murder he did not remember committing. No DNA evidence has ever linked Driskill to the murder, and his eventual conviction was based entirely around a confession that experts, including the Innocence Project, believe was coerced.
Between tactics employed by Rangers like Holland and adherence to hypnotic techniques experts say are dicey, Texas DPS has built a reputation as a monster catcher that appears to be sleight-of-hand.