Saving James Frye (Part Two of Two)

Continued from Part One

On July 19, 1922, James Frye testified on his own behalf and quickly denounced the confession he had made as being completely bogus.  Not only was he innocent of Dr. Brown's murder but he insisted that it was the dentist, John R. Francis Jr., (the one  who had originally implicated him in the murder) who was actually guilty.  Frye claimed that Francis had admitted to the murder while they were both high on gin and cocaine.   As Frye related in his testimony, Francis had been the one behind the extortion plot against the doctor and had killed him in retribution for going to the police.    

Though Frye's credibility was already suspect, the news that William Moulton Marston had personally tested James Frye with his newly-developed "lie detector" generated renewed interest in what seemed like an open-and-shut case up to that point.   The prospect of seeing this new device being demonstrated in the courtroom quickly became a major news story which led to a rush for any available seats in the courtroom where the trial was being held.  Many people waiting for hours to be seated with the courtroom being quickly filled to capacity and beyond. 

And they were all disappointed.   Though Frye's defense team submitted all of Marston's publications (including his dissertation) to the judge to bolster his credentials, Chief Justice Walter McCoy flatly refused to allow the psychologist to testify and directed the jury to render a verdict solely on the evidence presented to date.   Based on his reading of Marston's assorted research papers, Judge McCoy concluded that "so far the science has not sufficiently developed detection of deception by blood pressure to make it a usable instrument in a court of law. It would be entirely foreign to our practice to have such tests made out of court and not applied certainly to every witness who goes on the witness stand."  He also added that, "once such instruments became as well known as the radio, the telephone, and the telegraph, then it might have some consideration in the court."  He also rejected any attempt to have Marston qualified as an expert witness or to allow him to make any opinion about whether Frye was telling the truth or not. 

With this last-ditch defense being rejected, James Frye's fate was sealed.  The prosecutor for the case, Joseph Bilbrey summed up his argument by declaring  Frye to be "the most colossal liar that ever appeared in court" and the jury took only an hour to find him guilty of second-degree murder.  Though this saved him from the death penalty, the judge still sentenced him to life in prison and he was promptly sent to Fort Leavenworth to begin his sentence.

To nobody's surprise, Frye's attorneys, Mattingly and Wood, promptly launched an appeal arguing that William Marston's  technique would prove that Frye wasn't guilty of murder and that police had actually forced the confession out of him.   As for Marston, he basked in the notoriety the case had given him and promptly established what he proudly called the "only psycho-legal research laboratory in the United States" at American University.   He also worked with Frye's two attorneys to launch what would eventually become a Supreme Court case over the admissibility of Marston's device in a criminal trial. 

It probably didn't help that Marston was charged with various counts of mail fraud just days after the appeal was filed.  Though the charges were eventually dismissed, the stigma would haunt Marston for years and the publicity helped undermine James Frye's appeal.    Since he was tied up in court on his own behalf, this also meant that he had less time to help with the Frye appeal.   Due to various deferrals, the case would drag on for well over a year as Frye's defense team prepared their final legal brief titled, "Memorandum of Scientific History and Authority of Systolic Blood Pressure Test for Deception Memorandum of Scientific History and Authority of Systolic Blood Pressure Test for Deception."   Along with listing the various errors of law which they felt had been made in the Frye trial, they also outlined their case for allowing Marston's device to be allowed in the courtroom.   The brief was also notable for downplaying Marston's own contributions (likely due to the mail fraud charge still hanging over him).  The brieff inished by arguing that allowing evidence using Marston's sphygmomanometer was just as valid as allowing forensic psychiatrists to express an opinion about mental illness. 

To counter Mattingly and Wood's brief, the U.S. Attorney's Office responded with their own brief prepared by Peyton Gordon and Joseph Bilbrey.   This new brief basically focused on William Moulton Marston and questioned the credibility of the evidence he was trying to provide.   Gordon and Bilbrey also cited a law review article written by Harvard Law School professor Zechariah Chafee which was openly critical of Marston's research.  Not only was Chaffee a noted legal authority, but he actually knew Marston, having had him as one of his students.  Despite this, Chaffee pointed out that Marston's research was simply too untested to be accepted in a criminal trial.   Which was what Gordon and Bilbrey had been saying all along.

And the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeal agreed with them.  On December 3, 1923, the court handed down a 669-word decision upholding the original verdict and provided what would be commonly known as the "Frye test" for whether scientific evidence should be allowed as evidence in a criminal trial.  The decision stated, in part: 

Just when a scientific principle or discovery crosses the line between the experimental and demonstrable stages is difficult to define. Somewhere in this twilight zone the evidential force of the principle must be recognized, and while the courts will go a long way in admitting expert testimony deduced from a well recognized scientific principle or discovery, the thing from which the deduction is made must be sufficiently established to have gained general acceptance in the particular field in which it belongs.

The Frye decision would set the standard for scientific testimony in every U.S. state for decades to come and would also influence legal decisions in many other countries around the world.  Not until the case of Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals in 1993 would any other legal decision regarding scientific evidence come close to being as influential.   

Ironically, though the decision provided James Frye with legal immortality (whether he wanted it or not), it carefully removed any reference to William Moulton Marston or the device that was at the centre of the controversy.   Marston, for his part, despite expressing disappointment over the ruling, eventually moved on with his life including having children with two women (at the same time, but that's another story), as well as creating the comic book character, Wonder Woman, a legacy that remains with us long after Marston's death in 1947. 

 James Frye would eventually be paroled in 1939 after serving eighteen years in prison.  Long after his release and up until his death in 1956, he would work tirelessly trying to clear his name and insisted that he had been convicted due to racial bias (a distinct possibility given the political climate of that era).   His repeated attempts for a pardon in his case were continually denied.   

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