Probably the one thing about this whole case that caused me the most shame, was being a suspect. I can’t believe it happened and I can’t believe the police thought I could do something so awful. My mom was my alibi that night and she failed to remember I was home. She was in the bean bag chair when I came home that night, watching Soap, and didn’t know I had gone into my room and jumped on the phone with my friend Kathy. Mom had one job and she blew it. I forgave her. I don’t let her forget, but I do forgive.
I realized this was completely my dad’s fault.
Not because he had been murdered, but because he taught be how to be a jackass.
The room was small but looked a lot like the rooms I had seen on television. Three walls and what I could only assume was a two-way mirror on the fourth wall. Behind the glass I imagined there were law enforcement folks and my mom. I didn’t know my mom was in there, but I figured she’d make her way in to watch. In the middle of the room was a table and two chairs. One chair was facing the wall, the other was tucked under the table. On the table was a lie detector. It looked just like the kind you might see on Charlie’s Angels or the Rockford Files. I could see the little drum that fed the paper and the needle that would move back and forth. The machine was off as we got settled.
I was 18 years old. I had a birthday on February 5th and had only been an adult for a little over a month. I knew I should be taking this seriously, but I couldn’t. The very idea that I was responsible for my dad and stepmom’s life was crazy. They had been found a few days earlier, bludgeoned to death. I had always been a voracious reader, grabbing adult books from my dad’s nightstand when he was done. That’s how I learned about blow jobs at age 13. I had grabbed The Godfather and the wedding party scene pretty much clued me in on the things adults do. Probably not the best primer. The point is, I had read a lot and crime was one of my favorite genres. I knew they always looked at family members as suspects, but this was beyond nuts.
Somehow, they thought, I drove my Honda Express moped to my dad’s house. Grabbed a log off the woodpile. Went into his house while they were asleep and bludgeoned them to death. Then I left, went home, climbed into bed and waited for their bodies to be discovered. On Sunday, when we found out they were dead, I then was able to react with surprise and make all the right moves until the lie detector test on Tuesday. I suppose in some upside-down world, I should have been flattered. Or maybe terrified.
Instead, I protected myself by being a jackass.
I was seated in the chair that faced the wall. To my right was the table with the polygraph machine. The tester – a man who probably had a better title than “tester” – told me he was going to hook me up to the machine and that the test would be easy. All I had to do was answer honestly with yes or no answers. Cool. He gently put the two straps around my chest that would read my respirations. The theory was, people who are lying will breath more heavily. The straps were snug and sat above and below my bustline.
The next step was the blood pressure cuff. If I had a rise in my pressure, it was supposedly another signal that I wasn’t being truthful. It wasn’t too tight, and I can barely remember it being on. What I do remember is the little things wrapped around fingers on my right hand designed to measure my galvanic skin response: aka sweat. The theory was if I was sweating, I must be lying. Mind you this was measuring small changes; not giant flop sweat that I was sure was the outcome for people sitting in this chair who were actually guilty.
I was calm. I wasn’t taking any of this seriously. I’m pretty sure that comes from the privilege of being completely innocent and my insane curiosity about what was going to happen next. The examiner handed me a piece of paper and a pen.
“I’d like you to write a number between 1 and 9 on the sheet of paper, please” he said. I wrote a three.
“Good?” I asked.
“Perfect,” he said. He took the sheet of paper I had written on and taped it to the wall in front of me. “Okay,” he continued, “let’s get started.” He turned on the machine and it made a humming noise. He asked me to breathe normally while I’m guessing he calibrated and tested the machine. I stared at the number on the wall. I wasn’t sure how my “three” was relevant, but I sat quietly while the man prepared.
I looked around the room one more time and my eyes landed on the mirror. I figured my mom would be standing in the least optimum place because the investigators would want to watch me. I winked at the far-right corner. Later my mom would ask me how I knew she was standing right there. I told her that it was the only obvious place. She shook her head. I was always driving her nuts. The examiner moved and regained my attention. I wasn’t looking forward.
“Okay Jennifer,” he started, “Let’s see if this is working. We are going to do a test.”
What happened next wasn’t a plan. It really wasn’t. It was me being a jackass. A smarty pants. I had always been one. I was the kid who never took no for an answer. I could argue anything. I saw through adults and that had been a problem my whole life. I knew when they were full of shit. Someone told me once I am an old soul. That might explain it. Whatever “it” was, “it” kicked in and I did something I honestly did not plan to do.
Oh yes I did. I wanted to see if I could beat the machine.
“Here’s what I’d like you to do,” he said. “When I ask you a question, I want you to simply answer yes or no. You can’t shake your head or say anything else. It must be a yes or no answer. Do you understand?” This was a trick. I knew how to answer.
“Yes,” I said. Nailed it.
“Did I ask you to write a number on a sheet of paper?” he began.
“Did you write a five?” he asked. Oh, trying to trick me.
“No,” I answered. And then, in my head, I said to myself. I wrote an eight.
“Did you write a seven?”
“No,” it’s an eight I thought.
“Did you write a three?”
“Let me repeat that,” he said, “did you write a three?” I could feel him looking at me.
“No,” I repeated, and again said to myself, it’s an eight. I looked over at the examiner, I was so excited. “Did I beat the machine!?” I asked with probably way too much enthusiasm. He didn’t confirm or deny but he was not happy with me. I looked at the paper moving across the drum of the lie detector. I had watched enough episodes of Streets of San Francisco to know there was no movement indicating a lie. I flashed one more smile at my mom. She must be so proud (um, yeah, she wasn’t).
“Fine,” the examiner said, “let’s get going.” What happened next isn’t all that clear in my memory. I remember them asking me questions about both my dad and Charlene. He asked if my last time at their house was on the Thursday – the week before the murder. He asked if had been at their house the weekend of their murder. And then he asked the big questions.
“Did you kill Lyman?”
“Did you kill Charlene?”
“No.” I didn’t mess around with the real questions. I answered honestly and directly.