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Polygraph leads GA Court of Appeals to Affirm Molestation Conviction

March 18, 2013

In Williams v. State, the Georgia Court of Appeals held that the defendant did not establish that his trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance, thus affirming his convictions.

The lesson to be learned from this case is that under no circumstances should a defendant ever take a stipulated polygraph examination—that is, a polygraph in which the parties stipulate that the results will be admissible in court.

At trial, Christopher Williams was convicted of two counts of child molestation, one count of sexual battery, and one count of aggravated child molestation. The case stemmed from a statement made by Williams’ girlfriend’s eight year-old daughter that Williams “put his stuff inside her.” Williams consistently denied the allegations and explained that he merely checked the girl’s underwear for hygiene purposes. Additionally, medical professionals who examined the girl confirmed Williams’ concerns about her poor hygiene and found no signs of physical or sexual abuse. Prior to retaining counsel, he agreed to take a stipulated polygraph examination conducted at the direction of law enforcement. The examiner testified that the examination indicated deception and thus determined that Williams did not pass the polygraph.

On appeal, Williams alleged his trial counsel was ineffective by (1) failing to object to hearsay statements made by a police officer regarding conversations between the victim and her mother, (2) failing to object to inadmissible opinion evidence offered by the polygraph examiner, and (3) failing to object to the playing of the audio and video recordings of the polygraph exam in their entirety.

With respect to the first claim, the Court of Appeals held that the police officer’s hearsay statements were harmless as the evidence of the conversations between the victim and her mother were admitted via the victim’s and her mother’s own testimony.

Second, the Court held that all of the polygraph examiner’s testimony was admissible. In addition to testifying about the results of the polygraph test, the examiner also offered commentary on Williams’ personal hygiene, stating that he was skeptical of Williams’ explanation of checking the girl’s hygiene because his own was so poor. The Court held that this statement was not an improper comment on Williams’ credibility but rather an instance of an expert witness expressing his opinion about whether a certain piece of evidence in the case is consistent with the defendant’s story.

Third, the Court held that the introduction of the entire audio and video recording of Williams’ polygraph session was permissible—including Williams’ conversation with the examiner explaining his innocent touching of the victim and his response to the examiner’s accusations that he was lying. The Court explained that even though some lawyers might have objected to the admission of the entire polygraph session into evidence, the Court found that Williams’ counsel engaged in a reasonable trial strategy by failing to object yet cross-examining the polygraph examiner about the test.

Although the allegations against Williams appear to have been quite defendable, his decision to take the stipulated polygraph examination had devastating consequences. Whenever a law enforcement officer or prosecutor offers a defendant an opportunity to take a stipulated polygraph, the exam is conducted at the direction of the State—meaning they typically select the examiner. The examiner is the one who determines whether the defendant passes or fails the exam. These examiners will typically have a relationship with law enforcement which causes them to have a bias against the defendant. When a polygraph examiner has a bias, it can affect the results of the test.

From the account of what transpired during Williams’ polygraph examination, it clearly shows that the examiner was far less interested in conducting an independent test than he was in collecting evidence of Williams’ guilt. Thus, Williams never had a real chance of passing this exam. Once the jury learned of the failed polygraph, Williams had no chance of winning the trial.

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