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911 Call Analysis Debunked as Pseudoscience – But It Helped Send Many to Prison

by Kevin W. Bliss

The 911 call analysis method used to convict hundreds of defendants for the past decade has been debunked as pseudoscience. Civil rights activists call to have prosecutors held responsible for using it in cases, while being cognizant of its inadmissibility.

Tracy Harpster is the chief architect of the 911 call analysis technique – determining a suspect’s potential guilt based upon word choice, cadence, and grammar of a 911 call. He has since hosted seminars, consulted with law enforcement agencies, and trained police on the technique’s use and introduction as evidence into court.

However, this mischaracterized science has not properly been peer reviewed nor have the results of Harpster’s claims been duplicated. It has since been determined false and improper. ProPublica, a nonprofit news organization, completed a two-part investigation on the technique last year and published its findings.

One Ohio judge, upon reading the report, said, “I never anticipated that prosecutors – officers of the court – would engage in systematic, organized frauds.” She stated that she alerted other courts of the potential abuse of this practice in their venues. “I’m sure that some will care and share my outrage that innocent people are going to prison,” she said.

ProPublica’s investigation revealed hundreds of cases in 26 states where 911 call analysis was the predicate reason for conviction. Examples of agencies using the pseudoscience ranged from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

North Carolina and Texas are some states warning courts in their jurisdictions to be on the lookout for this faulty scientific discipline. The Fair and Just Prosecution organization has called for the courts’ independent review of these cases and sanctions against those who have improperly used its technique in court.

Some courts have lauded its use and admitted its integral value in defendants’ convictions. An Orange County, California, prosecutor wrote, “It significantly helped our district attorney to realize the indicators of guilt in the phone calls, as well as suggestions on how to introduce the 911 calls to the jury during trial.”

The President of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Nellie King, called the practice dangerous and insidious. She said the impact on case outcomes was devastating to those falsely accused.

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