To Tell The Truth (Part Two of Two)

Continued from Part One

William Hightower's  polygraph interrogation took place  at the  Redwood City jail on August 16, 1921 and was witnessed by Larson's assistant, Philip Edson, and  District Attorney Franklin Swart.    Compared to the modern polygraph, Larson's equipment was fairly primitive though it was state-of-the-art for that era.   Along with a pneumograph to measure Hightower's breathing, his blood pressure, heartbeat, and skin response patterns were all carefully inscribed on drums of smoked paper to monitor any changes during questioning. 

The interrogation followed what would be the classic format for polygraph sessions with three phases:  an initial phase to establish a baseline for physiological responding, the second phase in which Hightower was asked commonplace questions, and then the third phase in which he was asked questions about the case point-blank.   As for how the accused man responded during  questioning, Larson would later state that "there were marked rises in Hightower's blood pressure accelerations and marked irregularities as well following the vital questions that were asked of him."

As soon as Larson's test results were available, the Call and Post wrote up an exclusive story on the testing under the blaring headline:  "Science Indicates Hightower's Guilt."    The story went on to say that:

"Science penetrated the inscrutable face of William A. Hightower today, revealed that beneath an unruffled exterior is a seething torrent of heart throbbing emotions, and that these emotions indicate strongly that he was the murderer of Father Heslin of Colma."   

Boasting that "nothing could have been fairer",  Hightower's physiological responses to various questions about the murder and his role in the kidnapping were regarded as absolute proof of his guilt.    In the same article, Larson described his deception test as a clear improvement over the device developed by his main rival, William Moulton Marston (which he already regarded as "100 percent accurate") and Police Chief August Vollmer insisted that the test clearly demonstrated that Hightower had killed Father Heslin.  Vollmer also added that Larson's device was only the beginning and that future lie detectors would make it impossible for criminals to hide their guilt. In a later interview about what he found, Larson reported that Hightower was "covering up important facts on every crucial question that was asked."  The story, which also included photographs of Hightower after he had been hooked up to Larson's machine, ran under the headline "Psychologists Called Upon to Solve Murder" as well as "Scientific Methods Now Being Used to Determine Guilt of William Hightower."    According to Larson, changes in William Hightower's blood pressure and respiration when he was asked key questions not only highlighted discrepancies in his testimony but also provided "leads" that police would be able to use to investigate the case further. 

Ironically, despite the enthusiasm surrounding Larson's findings, they were never used as evidence in the Hightower trial.   Instead, the District Attorney chose to try the case with the evidence he already had (probably because Larson's device hadn't yet been used in court.)     With Father Heslin's housekeeper positively identifying William Hightower as the man who had lured the priest away they night he disappeared and the circumstantial evidence presented so far, the prosecution rested its case.   Though Hightower's defense attorney William Herron did his best to sway the jury by casting doubt on the prosecution's case, nobody had any real doubt as to the outcome.

Finally, on October 13, 1921, William Hightower was found guilty of murder.   It only took 90 minutes for the jury to reach a decision though they also recommended life imprisonment rather than execution.   Hightower took the verdict calmly, then turned to the lawyers and newspapermen he had been chatting with and said, "Well, boys. I guess you won't see me for some time."    He was was led back to his cell in the county jail while his attorney told reporters that there would be an appeal.

In the months following Hightower's conviction, new developments began to cast doubt on whether he was actually guilty or not.   As one of his defense attorneys told reporters, Hightower was a "half-wit" who was "made to serve the law's overzealous demand for a victim."    The murder of two other priests in Illinois and South Dakota, under circumstances very similar to Father Heslin's murder, also led to speculations that a serial killer was at work and that Hightower had been wrongfully convicted.    These crimes were never solved and, largely due to lack of public interest, Hightower's conviction was never appealed.

William Hightower would go on to serve one of the longest prison sentences in California history.   He remained a model prisoner but would be denied parole twenty-six times, largely due to his repeatedly insisting that he wasn't guilty.    Still, his years in San Quentin weren't completely wasted.   Along with writing letters to politicians and celebrities such as Mary Pickford, he earned headlines for his attempt at writing a book called, "Sweethearts of History."   He described this as a history of famous women including Cleopatra, Sappho, Mary Stuart, and Margaret Sanger and also included a series of abstract essays on women that meant as homespun philosophy.    No word is given on whether he ever finished it.   

Beyond that, Hightower continued to serve his sentence with little notice in the press except for a 1952 news story stating that the 74-year-old convict had been allowed to "retire" after three decades of working in San Quentin's furniture factory.   At the time, he told reporters that he intended to spend his time working on his assorted homilies which he titled, "Observations from a Hightower."    Soon afterward, he was transferred to a minimum security facility but he continued to fight for exoneration.  

In a letter he wrote in 1961, he stated that "being put in prison may have been the best thing that ever happened to me - I bear no grudges."  He also thanked the jury for not recommending he be executed since this saved him for his life's work with his writing.   He added that "I have done more to make the English language richer than has been done by any other man in any other era."    Of course, he then went on to describe his trial as being a sham since his attorney had failed to call any of the witnesses he requested.   He also claimed that his lawyer helped the judge prevent him "from developing facts vital to my defense."

Finally, after 43 years in prison, William Hightower was paroled in 1965 and allowed to live in a halfway house in Los Angeles.  Even as he was released, he continued to insist that he was innocent and that it was "impossible for me to do such a crime."    The 86-year-old convict expressed little bitterness over his long years in prison but announced that, "I'm not going out running all over the world, just to have a look at it."    He never had the opportunity since he died a few months later. 

Ironically enough, John Augustus Larson would die that same year after a long career using his polygraph technology in hundreds of criminal investigations.   His very first polygraph is now on display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D. C.  and the polygraph continues to be included in various lists of remarkable scientific achievements.  While polygraph advocates continue to insist that  it is 90 percent accurate, the polygraph continues to be controversial.   A 2003 report b the National Academy of Sciences dismissed most of the research supporting polygraph evidence as "unreliable, unscientific and biased."   Despite this skepticism,  the polygraph continues to be used in criminal investigations though most jurisdictions do not allow polygraph evidence to be used in criminal trials.

Did John August Larson's polygraph results help convict William Hightower?  While Larsons's findings weren't introduced as evidence, the newspaper coverage of Larson's testing of Hightower certainly helped convince the public that he was guilty.   Which is still one of the main dangers of polygraph use today, especially in high-profile cases.  Today, we can only speculate on whether Hightower's conviction represented a miscarriage of justice or not.   Despite attempts by scientists such as John Larson and William Moulton Marston to develop machines for exposing lies, truth seems to be as elusive as ever.



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