The police gave Ricky Joyner a pen and a nine-page questionnaire.
Write what you did, beginning to end, on the day Sandra Hernandez disappeared, one question asked.
“Went ot work …,” Joyner wrote, transposing the letters in “to.” “Went home toke shower got dress pick Sandra up … went out to eat … went the movies … toke Sandra home … stop at [bar] for little while, then spent the night with a grilfriend.”
“Did you cause Sandra to become missing?” another question asked.
“No,” Joyner wrote.
“How do you feel now that you have completed this form?”
“Yes,” Joyner wrote, that one word the entirety of his answer.
When Hernandez went missing in Elkhart, Indiana, in March of 1992, the police suspected Joyner might be responsible. But Joyner, who worked with Hernandez at a door-manufacturing company, denied having anything to do with her disappearance.
To assess Joyner’s credibility, Elkhart police turned to a tool — well known to many police departments, little known to the public — called Scientific Content Analysis, or SCAN for short.
A detective, trained in SCAN, reviewed Joyner’s written answers. He also examined the answers of a second suspect who filled out the same questionnaire. After conducting his analysis, the detective typed up a two-page report. The second suspect’s responses were “truthful,” the detective concluded. Joyner’s, he determined, were “deceptive.”
He noted that while summarizing the day Hernandez disappeared, Joyner had not used the word “I,” writing, for example, “went home,” not, “I went home.” “That in itself is a signal of deception,” the detective wrote. Instead of writing “my girlfriend,” Joyner had written “a girlfriend.” What’s more, the detective wrote, Joyner’s handwriting was larger and more spread out in the answer’s last two lines than in the previous seven.
When asked why the police should believe his answers, Joyner had written, “I have nothing to hide.”
“This is not the same as stating I did not lie,” the detective wrote.
When Hernandez was later found dead, Joyner was charged with, and convicted of, murder.
In July, ProPublica and the South Bend Tribune wrote about the questionable evidence used against Joyner at trial. But in Joyner’s case, as in many others, the police, while setting the investigation’s course early on, used an investigative tool that exists out of public view. Such tools rarely, if ever, make it into the courtroom because they’re too unreliable to clear even the low threshold for evidence allowed at trial.
SCAN, a product sold by a company called the Laboratory for Scientific Interrogation (LSI), has, in the words of four scholars in a 2016 study, “no empirical support” — meaning, there’s no dependable research showing that it works.
Scientific Content Analysis is akin to other investigative tools scrutinized by ProPublica, including bloodstain-pattern analysis and photo analysis. These analytical techniques promise a degree of certainty — about how blood came to spray across a wall, or whether a particular plaid shirt was worn by a robber — that can guide an investigator or shore up a case. The trial evidence presented against Joyner included yet another example: a prosecution expert testified that two plastic garbage bags — one found in Joyner’s apartment, the other around Hernandez’s head — had “definitely” once been connected. (A statistician said in an interview that this testimony was laced with “a lot of unproven assertions.”) Law enforcement officials hold these tools out as science, even though they have little or no scientific backing.
SCAN’s creator has written, “I am pleased to say SCAN has helped solve thousands of cases over the years.”
While police in Elkhart and elsewhere have used the tool to make critical decisions that can establish an investigation’s direction, SCAN has escaped the scrutiny that comes with being offered in court as proof. Appellate opinions often refer to key pieces of evidence used at trial, but a search of legal databases with opinions from around the country turns up precious few mentions of SCAN.
The detective who used SCAN in the Joyner case was Steve Rezutko. He resigned from the Elkhart police in 2001 after an internal investigation found he had engaged in sexual misconduct with an informant. He died, in an apparent suicide, this year.
In 1994, two years after Hernandez’s death, Rezutko was asked in a deposition to describe his training in SCAN.
“Not great,” Rezutko said. “Been to two schools. At the time, I hadn’t done an awful lot, maybe 40 or 50 interpretations, but I had been to a weeklong school in Indianapolis under the guy who … developed the procedure.”
Joyner’s lawyer asked whether a person’s ability to read and comprehend the English language could affect the results of the questionnaire.
“Well … you struggle with the same questions I struggled with when I went through the school, went through the sessions,” Rezutko said. “I guess it’s kind of like two and two is four. Why is it four? It’s two and two is four all over the world. Why it is I have no idea.”
Rezutko, like officers across the country, took it on faith that SCAN works, without really understanding how or why.