Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Building to Extremes Human Body Shop SpyCatchers Hi-Tech War Crash Site Secrets Miracle Cell Light Speed Brain Fingerprinting Innovation - Life, Inspired
about the series

feedback credits
back to about the episode transcript
Brain Fingerprinting
May 4, 2004

Narrator: Every year in the United States over one million violent crimes are committed. In the vast majority, there is no DNA evidence; no fingerprints left behind. But a record of the crime is always stored in the criminal's brain.

Report: On Wednesday the Macon, County Sheriff's department received a phone call from a concerned person about the well being of Ethel resident John Wolf. The fifty-seven-year-old Vietnam veteran had not been seen for a couple of days, according to Macon County Sheriff Robert Dawson. Sheriff's deputies found the doors to Wolf's residence locked, and had to force their way into the house where they found Wolf dead.

Macon County coroner Brian Hayes ruled the death a homicide after he received preliminary autopsy reports on Friday afternoon. Macon County Sheriff Robert Dawson, said the cause of death was not being released.

Sheriff Robert Dawson: When the crime occurred, we being a small agency, we're short of manpower, so we called in the major case squad, the criminal investigative division of the highway patrol. And we all worked on the case for period of several weeks, and developed what we thought was a suspect in the, in the case. And in an effort to try determine whether we have the right person or not, one of the tools we chose to use was Brain Fingerprinting.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: You weren't there at that crime? You didn't commit that crime where Wolf was killed?

Suspect: No. No.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: And you don't any of the things that happened inside there, except for the ones I've told you.

Suspect: No. No.

Narrator: Brain Fingerprinting's inventor asserts that by reading brain waves, he can determine whether a suspect has the record of a crime stored in his mind.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: You'll see your first stimulus in about ten seconds.

Sheriff Robert Dawson: Brain Fingerprinting gives you a means of identifying if they have that information in their brain, and if they do, then like I said, it got there some way.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: Look at the center of the screen. Okay good, just relax.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: Brain Fingerprinting is non-invasive; it's non-testimonial; it's non-stressful; and it simply provides the truth. And the use of that forensically is that we can detect whether the record in someone's brain matches a crime scene or doesn't.

Robert Jackson: Jimmy Slaughter has been on Oklahoma's death row from the time we first picked up his file. This is a senseless crime. I've seen some terrible things happen, and this is the worst that I've seen.

C. Wesley Lane: Jimmy Ray Slaughter was convicted based upon overwhelming evidence. I have absolutely no doubt that Jimmy Ray Slaughter did this.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: What Brain Fingerprinting tells us is that this specific information is stored in this brain, or this specific information isn't stored in this brain. If you're a judge and jury and you have the opportunity to know this suspect doesn't know all of these critical details about the crime. This best suspect does know all of these critical details about the crime. Is that a useful tool to you? I submit that it is.

Narrator: Just west of Highway 218, in Fairfield, Iowa, some believe a revolution in forensic science is taking place. It is called Brain Fingerprinting.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: Now in the Jimmy Ray Slaughter case, we have a very short period of time before he's executed. They're going to be scheduling an execution date, which is probably going to be within the next several months, probably his execution date will be in May.

Narrator: If the claims of its creator, Dr. Lawrence Farwell, are to be believed, Brain Fingerprinting will radically alter the way we solve crimes. It will revolutionize the criminal justice system.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: Instead of looking at all of the evidence all around the individual - the footprints, the fingerprints, the DNA, the video cameras, if there is one. To look to the central place where the crime is planned, where the crime is executed, and where the crime is recorded, that's the brain of the individual. It's a whole different way of looking at how do you investigate a crime.

Narrator: Imagine a crime scene. The police would note that this murder took place in a garage, that the victim was found next to a car, shot once in the head with .38 caliber handgun. Brain Fingerprinting could then determine whether or not a suspect's brain recognizes those specific details. If it does, the police know their suspect has information from that crime stored in his brain.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: Okay, in this test, you'll see an item that one of the suspects was wearing when he was apprehended, an item that was in the possession of the suspects when they were apprehended...

Narrator: Brain Fingerprinting is not a super-accurate lie detector. In fact it has nothing to do with "telling the truth."

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: You ready?

Man: Yep.

Narrator: It is, instead, a multiple-choice test given to the brain, where each option elicits a specific brain-wave response. That response is recorded by an EEG, and analyzed by Dr. Farwell.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: The neurons in the brain, the nerve cells in the brain, fire electrically. And they fire in synchronized patterns, large numbers of cells. So we pick up faint electrical signals at the scalp. And then that signal is digitized and the numbers are recorded by the computer. We don't have a choice about making these particular responses. When something significant comes up that we notice, the brain is gonna say "Aha!" "Aha! Yeah, that's something important to me."

Narrator: That "Aha!" moment, that nearly instantaneous spark of recognition, is what scientists call the p300. It is the scientific foundation on which Brain Fingerprinting is built. Dr. Farwell's innovation was to use the p300 to test for guilty knowledge, to determine whether or not a suspect's brain recognizes key crime-scene evidence.

To show how this technology works, Dr. Farwell is asked to conduct a blind test using a real crime. On a farm near the town of Fairfield, Iowa, fertilizer was stolen to make methamphetamine, or crank. The police caught the perpetrator in the act. This person pled guilty, and served two years in jail.

Four individuals are asked to participate in the test. Their names, and all personal details, are withheld from Dr. Farwell. He has no way to match the subjects to the crime--other than Brain Fingerprinting. The volunteers are told no details of the crime, not where it occurred or what was stolen. One of them, however, is guilty.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: I'm Dr. Farwell ...

Subject A: Nice to meet you.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: Now you understand today we're going to be measuring your brainwaves.

Subject A: Yes

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: And we're going to determine whether there's certain information stored in your brain about a particular crime that's been committed.

Subject A: Yes.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: Alright, so you'll see words, you'll push a button in response to each word, one button or the other and I'll tell you which one; and you have a head-band on your head that's going to be measuring your brainwaves.

Narrator: In any good scientific test, there are control and experimental groups. In essence: things we know, measured against the things we want to find out. It's the same in Brain Fingerprinting. Dr. Farwell presents a subject with three different kinds of information -- or stimuli. The first are the control group, or what he calls "targets."

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: Targets contain information that we know the subject knows. They are details about the crime that we tell him -- he may have learned those from some other source as well -- but we're sure that he knows the targets. The purpose of the targets is to get a brain response that indicates that in fact yes, the subject does recognize this, yes he does know this.

Narrator: Targets are going to be the control group for a positive response. Dr. Farwell has to make sure the subjects recognize these stimuli, and he does that by giving them the targets just before they take the test.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: So these are the ones that you're gonna have to know, okay? You're gonna have to be able to recognize these when they come up on the screen, and they'll flash very briefly on the screen. So in other words you're gonna know what the correct answer is in some of those lists. So take a look at this and make sure you know them and you'll be able to recognize them.

Narrator: Now that the subject has read the targets, his brain should fire a p300 response when presented with them during the test. The second kind of stimuli are what Dr. Farwell calls "irrelevants." They are his control stimuli for no p300 response.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: Irrelevant stimuli are words or phrases or pictures, that are irrelevant to the person -- they have nothing to do with the crime, they're not significant to the person, they're things he doesn't know, things that he won't find significant -- and that gives us a standard for information that he doesn't know.

Narrator: So, if irrelevants are Dr. Farwell's yardstick to measure no recognition, it's essential that the subjects not know those stimuli, and the best way to ensure that is to simply make them up. The third kind of stimuli are what Dr. Farwell calls "probes."

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: Probes contain information that is relevant to the crime, but that the person has no way of knowing if he wasn't at the crime.

Narrator: Probes are the experimental group -- those things that only the individual who committed the crime could reasonably know. Dr. Farwell selects them from the police reports.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: We flashed probes mixed in with other things that it would be equally plausible for somebody who doesn't know about the crime. If the individual was there, he'll know which is the right option and his brain will say "Aha, that's it." If he wasn't there he'll see "grain bin", he'll see "office building", he'll see "store-front" -- he won't know which is the right item and he won't get that kind of "Aha!" recognition response.

Narrator: So, each of the four subjects knows the targets. They don't know the irrelevants. And Dr. Farwell will attempt to find out which one of them recognizes the probes.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: In this test you're going to see an item that one of the suspects was wearing when he was apprehended, an item that was in the possession of the suspects when they were apprehended, the item the suspects were stealing, and where the crime was committed, the kind of place, dwelling, or establishment. Okay just relax. Look at the center of the screen.

Narrator: During the Brain Fingerprinting test, Dr. Farwell has the subjects click a mouse each time a stimulus appears. They are told to left-click the mouse when presented with targets -- the words they were instructed to memorize. They right-click for everything else.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: The button presses basically, keep the subject on the task. And that way we know they're paying attention.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: Okay, just relax.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: We ran targets, probes, and irrelevants, and he saw each of those several times for a total of between two to three thousand stimuli that were presented. And we measure the response a number of times, and then we average those.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: Alright good ...

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: In this case the local law-enforcement authorities were trying to catch somebody who was running a methamphetamine lab. So the people who were running this meth-lab were stealing anhydrous ammonia from a particular location on a farm. Stealing anhydrous ammonia was one of the probe stimuli- that was what the crime was.

The grain bin was another probe stimuli, it was a landmark that they would have had to have seen to have been here. Also, what the perpetrators did at the time of the crime, there was a sequence of events -- where they got out of the car, they brought with them a flashlight, that were used as probe stimuli.

Narrator: These are the details of the crime Dr. Farwell used to build his Brain Fingerprinting test. But is he able to tell which subject was guilty?

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: Okay. These are data for Subject D. At this point we presented the stimulus -- this is 1.6 seconds later. So this axis is time, and this is voltage. So you can see there is a voltage increase, and then decrease. The targets, represented by the red line, he clearly recognizes those. That's no surprise, we knew he would, we told him what they were. The irrelevants are represented by the green line, and he doesn't get that marked response with the irrelevants.

The critical question here is does he recognize the probes? Now the probes, clearly, go right along with the irrelevants. The blue line matches the green line. So what that means is that those probes, those details about this specific crime were irrelevant to that particular subject.

Okay, this is Mr. B, this is the second subject who came in. Again, he recognizes these targets. There is a very clear peak that takes place in the red line, he's recognizing the targets. And then, he doesn't recognize the irrelevants, you don't see that recognition response to the green line.

Here in this case, however, this blue line represents the probes -- those are details about the crime that we didn't tell him -- but clearly his brain recognized those details about the crime. Subjects A, C, and D did not know the significant details of the crime. Subject B had a very clear record of the significant details of the crime stored in his brain, that he had no other way of knowing other than committing the crime.

Narrator: It was, in fact, subject B who stole anhydrous ammonia from a farm outside Fairfield, Iowa. But this was a controlled setting where the subject had already pled guilty to the crime. What happens when Brain Fingerprinting leaves the lab? When the answers aren't known before the test is given? Does Brain Fingerprinting have any value in the real world?

Sheriff Robert Dawson: We are currently investigating a homicide that occurred a little over a month ago. We all worked on the case for a period of several weeks, and developed what we thought was a suspect in the case.

Narrator: On December 3rd, 2003, John Wolf, a Vietnam veteran who lived in Ethel, Missouri was found dead inside his home. There were no signs of forced entry, but the police almost immediately ruled his death a homicide.

Practically no details of the murder were made public: not the motive, not where the body was found, not even the manner of death -- making it an ideal crime for Brain Fingerprinting.

Rick Tucker: I picked up this forgery case, and the Sheriff told me, and the prosecutor also told me, that he was a suspect on the murder of Mr. Wolf. I went over to him at the jail and I sat down with him and I talked to him about it for a while. And all through this he says, "I didn't do this, Rick." So I said, "Well there's you know, Brain Fingerprinting." And I told him about that. And I told him that it's believed to be 100 percent reliable. And he said you know, "Let's do it."

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: So, we'll put a headband on your head. We'll be able to tell what information's stored in your brain. Okay?

Narrator: This suspect was arrested for forgery, but soon found himself facing possible first-degree murder charges -- charges that in the state of Missouri, would make him eligible for the death penalty.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: Well, first of all let me get straight on that. You didn't commit this crime, with Wolf.

Suspect: No.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: And you've never been inside his house.

Suspect: No.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: So, I mean, you wouldn't know the details of what went on inside there.

Suspect: No. I've never seen him except in the newspaper.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: You've never seen him at all except in the newspaper.

Suspect: Newspaper. Yeah, I've got the newspaper clippings.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: And you've never been inside his house.

Suspect: No, I never have.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: Okay, so ...

Suspect: But, I've been at his residence.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: You've been outside the house.

Suspect: Right.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: Okay.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: The primary suspect said that he had never been inside the house and had never met the victim. But he had been here, he said, to deliver wood.

Narrator: Since the Sheriff's office had released no details about the murder of John Wolf, it was not hard to find probes for a Brain Fingerprinting test. But for the targets, Dr. Farwell chose to visit the crime scene.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: In coming to this house, he may well have noticed that there was a dumpster in front of the house, and that was one of the things we used as a target. He may well have noticed that there were trees behind the house, and that was another thing we used as a target. Over here, on this side of the house, there is a covered porch, and the suspect delivered wood, which was placed on a wood pile that was right here, right next to this covered porch. So again we used that as one of the targets.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: You'll see your stimulus in about ten seconds.

Narrator: Over a two-day period in January, 2004, the suspect was Brain Fingerprinted for the murder of John Wolf. Dr. Farwell had been called in by the public defender to try to confirm the suspect's claim that he knew nothing of the murder. But the Brain Fingerprinting test showed something quite different.

Suspect: What are we going to do today?

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: Well, I want you to help me to understand some of the results we got from yesterday.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: Immediately before the Brain Fingerprinting test the suspect denied any knowledge whatsoever about the crime. After the Brain Fingerprinting test the subject had to account for what we were finding, and in so doing he stated that, in fact, he did know a number of the most salient details about the crime. He knew where the body was lying, what the body was lying on, what the person was wearing, an unusual item that was taken from the crime scene at the time of the crime.

And he said that the reason he knew these things was because the perpetrator of the crime, had confessed the crime to him, and had told him these details about it. So now we have a very different story from this particular suspect.

Narrator: After the brain fingerprinting test, the Sheriff questioned the person implicated by this suspect. Yet, to date, no charges have been filed in the Wolf murder.

Suspect: All I can tell is I didn't do it. Cause I wasn't there, so.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: Okay. I guess we gotta get somebody to take you back out.

Narrator: Nevertheless, the science of Brain Fingerprinting has moved the investigation forward. This suspect now admits to details of the crime the sheriff's office never made public--details he once adamantly denied knowing. Quite possibly, John Wolf's murderer is one step closer to being brought to justice.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: What's at stake with Brain Fingerprinting, is people's lives and people's freedom. Because this can provide the truth about cases, it can provide the truth about crimes. And that means that people who should be off the street will be behind bars, people who are innocent, and should be allowed to go on with their lives, will be able to do that.

Robert Jackson: The basic facts are someone used a small caliber handgun to essentially execute, they think, the adult victim first before she was taken back to another room and stabbed numerous times and had carvings placed on her, on her body with the knife. And then tragically, the eleven month old infant is shot twice. I believe both times to the head. So just a real heart-wrenching crime. Something that you just can do this work an awful long time and never really understand why things like this happen.

C. Wesley Lane: Jimmy Ray Slaughter was convicted based upon overwhelming evidence. He is the only person that had a burning motive, and an expressed desire to see Melody Wuertz and especially her baby, dead.

Narrator: A decade ago, Jimmy Ray Slaughter was sentenced to death for the double homicide of Melody and Jessica Wuertz. Since then he has exhausted all appeals.

Robert Jackson: In simple terms, Jimmy Slaughter has approximately ninety days to live.

Jimmy Ray Slaughter: It was a horrible crime. I had nothing to do with that one, and I've had nothing to with any before or nothing after. There are people that do things like that. I am not one of those people. It's just that simple. That's the truth.

I knew that there was something out there that would present the truth. I was not in Oklahoma when those murders occurred. And I knew there was something that could prove that I wasn't. There had to be. I mean just had to be.

Robert Jackson: I'm Robert Jackson.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: Dr. Larry Farwell.

Narrator: Robert Jackson, Slaughter's lead attorney, believes Brain Fingerprinting might be the only thing standing between his client and the execution chamber.

Robert Jackson: He's nervous about the test, as I think anyone would be. He doesn't know exactly what to expect. And I didn't really know what to tell him to expect. So he's kind of going to being flying by wire on the thing.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: I won't know, I won't have done all of the data analysis until a couple of days after the tests have been run. I will be analyzing data for a couple of days. However, after these three days I may have a pretty good idea of how the data are going to come out. And we could have a preliminary discussion on that basis, as to where to go legally from here, given what I've found.

This murder took place in 1991. So, it's been a long time, and the suspect, actually the convict now, has been exposed to a lot of information about the crime. It's always most difficult to run a Brain Fingerprinting test when somebody's already been convicted of a crime. Cause what that means is they've sat through a trial. So they know a tremendous amount about the crime from the trial, which has nothing to do with whether they've done it or not.

Robert Jackson: There was no scientific evidence found at this crime scene, but suspicion focused on Jimmy Slaughter fairly quickly.

Interviewer: It wasn't quite that you were sort of picked out of the sky, as it were, because there was a connection you had to the victim.

Jimmy Ray Slaughter: There was definitely a connection to the victim as a friend.

Interviewer: As just a friend?

Jimmy Ray Slaughter: Well, no. There's different levels of friendship. We'd had a relationship.

Narrator: In 1991 Jimmy Ray Slaughter was an Army Reservist, stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas. When not in the service, Slaughter worked at the VA Hospital in Oklahoma City. Two years before the murders, Slaughter, a married man with two children, began an affair with a co-worker, Melody Wuertz. Together they had a child, Jessica. Slaughter's wife, Nikki, did not know about Jessica. In fact, Slaughter denied paternity even after DNA tests proved he was the father.

Jimmy Ray Slaughter: The only reason I did that was to try to save myself a little embarrassment with Nikki. Nikki knew that I had a little problem with fidelity and marriage, but if she had known that I had a child, I think that would have pushed it over the edge, I think that she would have- I didn't want her to run off with the kids and have complete custody of the children, and all that. What can I say?

Narrator: Melody Wuertz tried to collect child support from Slaughter, which several eyewitnesses say enraged him. The state argued that this unpaid child support -- just under $3000 -- became Slaughter's motive for the murders. The case against Slaughter was also built with compelling evidence.

Both Melody and Jessica Wuertz were shot twice with extremely rare, foreign-made ammunition: Eley .22 caliber, hollow-point bullets. A box of the exact same bullets was found in Jimmy Ray Slaughter's gun cabinet.

Even more damning, however, was the testimony of an expert witness who claimed metallurgical tests showed that the bullets used in the murders and the ones in Slaughter's possession were elementally identical. The state was then able to argue that the bullets used to kill Melody and Jessica Wuertz came from Slaughter's box.

Then, there was the testimony of Cecilia Johnson. Johnson was a co-worker of Slaughter's, and another of his many mistresses. She stated that Slaughter had asked her to collect, from a transient black man at the VA hospital, two items that were found at the crime scene: a pair of underwear and a clump of hair.

Slaughter denied ever asking for, or receiving these items. Nevertheless, the police used Cecilia Johnson's testimony to charge that Slaughter planted the underwear under the bed, and bunched the African-American hair onto a comb to make it look like Melody was murdered by a prowler, or a deviant who had sexually assaulted her.

C. Wesley Lane: Jimmy Ray Slaughter, when he was interviewed the next day, begins, and is the only person to comment to the police, that Melody Wuertz had quote "racial preferences" of her boyfriends. And: "You know, Melody mentioned to me that there was a black prowler, in her backyard and that he had jumped the fence" and all that.

Now Jimmy Ray Slaughter is volunteering that information and there's a reason for that, because when individuals, when killers leave false trails they want the trails followed. The only place investigators ever heard of Melody Wuertz having some sort a "preference" if you will, for black men, was from one person, and that's Jimmy Ray Slaughter.

Narrator: Slaughter countered this mountain of evidence with one simple claim: He was not in the state of Oklahoma when the murders took place.

Nikki: At the time that the murders were committed, I was married to Jimmy Ray Slaughter. And a couple of days before the murders were committed, my girls and I had gone up to stay with him in Fort Riley, Kansas. Well, we got up fairly early, and we went to have breakfast at a restaurant in Fort Riley. And then we drove to Topeka, Kansas and went to the mall.

Jimmy Ray Slaughter: And we did some shopping. We ate. We went to a movie there.

Nikki: And then we came back to his room, at Fort Riley, and then we stayed up late watching television. And we really had quite a nice day. I think it was the best day that we'd ever had together as a family.

Narrator: The state challenged this, arguing that no one, beyond his wife, could place Slaughter in Kansas. In fact, investigators believed that Nikki was covering up for her husband, and they tried to break her story.

Robert Jackson: What they wound up doing was arresting her. She faced two counts of first degree murder right along with her husband and was looking at the death penalty. Most people would have come out and said, "I'll tell you what ever you want me to tell you." Well, she didn't do that. She said, "No. He was with me" They divorced shortly thereafter. Her story continued to be, "No, he was with me." And a judge threw out the entire case against Nikki at preliminary hearing.

Nikki: I feel that it's wrong that he should be on death row. I know he's innocent of these crimes. And I hope that this procedure that he's undergoing will help to prove his innocence.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: They're going to give us just today, so we'll see how much we can get done. It's going to be tight.

Narrator: In February 2004, Dr. Farwell traveled to McAlester, Oklahoma to Brain Fingerprint Jimmy Ray Slaughter on death row.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: If it comes back that Jimmy Ray Slaughter is information present, then he has a clear record of the details of this crime stored in his brain that he would have no way of knowing other than having been there to commit the crime. Now there's a lot of differing opinions on the death penalty. But it's clear, if he comes out information present, it's clear that they've got the right person.

Robert Jackson: Well, to be honest with you, if this test comes back information positive, quite frankly I'm going to have to question the validity of the test. Because, based on what I know, my money is still on Jim Slaughter that he didn't commit this crime.

Narrator: In the case of Jimmy Ray Slaughter, Dr. Farwell had an extremely limited number of probes from which to choose.

Farwell's Assistant: Good morning. We're cleared to go into H-Unit.

Guard: Dr. Farwell?

Farwell's Assistant: Dr. Farwell.

Narrator: Slaughter had sat through a lengthy trial, the longest in Oklahoma's history. Details of the crime had been a part of the public record for over a decade. From the thousands of pages of trial transcripts, Dr. Farwell had to make a judgment call; he selected which details of the crime only the murderer could know.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: The room where the adult victim's body was located. Read that, and then read the choices.

Jimmy Ray Slaughter: The room where the adult victim's body was located. Bedroom. Dining Room. Kitchen.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: Okay. You don't know which of those, right?

Jimmy Ray Slaughter: No.

Narrator: Dr. Farwell entered with just five probes, but even before the test can begin, there is a problem with one of them.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: The location of the adult victim's shorts after the crime. I believe that's something you don't know.

Jimmy Ray Slaughter: The location of the adult victim's shorts after the crime. By easy chair. Near right arm. On left knee. This sounds like something, like a picture that I saw.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: This one? The location of the adult victim's shorts after the crime.

Jimmy Ray Slaughter: Yeah, and I don't know, I do not know, but it sounds familiar that they were just on her leg, or something. I- that just sounds familiar.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: Okay, we're going to have to get rid of that one then, because. . .

Narrator: Once Slaughter recognizes this probe, it has to be eliminated, for there is now another plausible explanation for it to elicit a p300 -- namely, Slaughter recognized this information from his trial. This leaves Dr. Farwell with only four probes.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: Okay, you ready?

Jimmy Ray Slaughter: Yes, sir.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: Okay, look at the center of the screen. Left-hand button for the ones you know on that short list. Okay, here we go. Ten seconds to the first stimulus.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: Here are the things you're going to see in this block, and I want you to read them.

Narrator: For more than ten hours Jimmy Ray Slaughter was Brain Fingerprinted for murders he claims he did not commit. Just months away from execution, the only thing that can save Slaughter now is compelling new evidence of innocence -- evidence that could not have been available at the time of trial. Something like Brain Fingerprinting.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: So Jim, I haven't totally analyzed the data yet. And I won't have fully analyzed it for a couple of days. But I can get a preliminary look at it on this screen here. The probes are this blue line; they match the green line. There's no recognition response. So what this tells us is that you don't know some of the most critical, salient details about that crime. So what does that mean to you?

Jimmy Ray Slaughter: It means that what I've said all along is true.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: And what'd you say all along?

Jimmy Ray Slaughter: That I was innocent. I'm sorry.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: That's alright. I brought along Kleenex. You can have some. You didn't do it?

Jimmy Ray Slaughter: No. It's just hard to get people to believe you once someone makes a stupid accusation. That's all it took. That's all it took. And it ruined my life, and my kids' lives. I wasn't in Oklahoma when it took place. I knew nothing about it. Not until the police came to Kansas and accused me of it.

This very well could mean the difference between life and death. And it not only means that to me. It means it to my children, and to the friends I have. And I'm sure there's a lot of other people that it's going to mean the same thing to in the near future. I hope. I really hope so.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: We just finished the test a short time ago. I just got back from the prison. I haven't done a full data analysis. But the preliminary analyses indicate that we're going to be able to conclude with a very high statistical confidence, on the order of 99 percent, that Jimmy Ray Slaughter does not know, does not have stored in his brain, some of the most salient and significant details about this particular murder that he's been convicted of committing.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: When I got involved in Brain Fingerprinting, when I first invented the technology, what I had hoped is that my discoveries about the brain would be put to use to really make a difference in people's lives. And this really, this is about as consequential a difference as you can make in someone's life. So in that sense it was very fulfilling to me to be able to see that we could discover what the truth was in a case where the truth very very much needed to be brought out, and where we had very little time left to do it.

Narrator: Armed with the results, Slaughter's attorneys must now make the case to have Brain Fingerprinting admitted as evidence before Slaughter is executed.

Robert Jackson: What's the time table for filing the post-conviction application? Yeah. Okay. Yeah, it does. So, we need to be ready to go by the nineteenth- or by the fifteenth. Okay.

Robert Jackson: There's no road map for where we go. This is an exceptionally scary case to be a lawyer on. There's no, there's no blueprint I can go off of. You know, there's not one of these law books in this office that I can pull down and say, "Okay, when this happens you do this." I know what we're going to try to do. And we're going to try to get back into state court. If an execution date has been set at the time we get back into state court, we will ask the court of criminal appeals to stay that execution date.

Where we want to get is back into district court, where we can argue that Brain Fingerprinting, and the results of Jim's testing is newly discovered evidence, evidence that we could not have discovered years ago and that it is significant in that it indicates that he had nothing to do with that murder in Edmond.

Narrator: In the weeks after the Slaughter test, Dr. Farwell told the press that Jimmy Ray Slaughter did not know four crucial facts about the murders of Melody and Jessica Wuertz. Specifically, where Jessica was shot; the room where Melody's body was found; the position of her body; and the writing on her t-shirt. But even if the findings are correct, they may not be enough to save Slaughter's life -- for they do not conclusively prove that he was not involved in this crime.

Because Cecilia Johnson tied Slaughter to key pieces of crime-scene evidence, the jury was instructed that they could find Slaughter guilty if they believed one of two things: that Slaughter committed the murders himself, or that Cecilia Johnson was guilty and Slaughter aided and abetted her.

C. Wesley Lane: Mr. Slaughter is convicted of doing this murder in one of two ways. One way was is he either personally did it, or he had it done. Either of which makes him eligible for the death penalty in this case. So, so even if was not at this crime scene, in other words, and in fact really didn't recognize it, it would not mean anything.

Narrator: Slaughter, for his part, always denied any connection to these items. He claims Johnson never sent them.

Jimmy Ray Slaughter: There was absolutely no evidence that she could have done such a thing. That she could have sent me a comb or shorts, or anything else. She just said it, and suddenly it became the truth. But it wasn't true. It was just trash. It was just garbage. She just said it. She sent me a package, but it had a ring in it. That's all it was. It was a ring. It was for my birthday.

Narrator: We will never know whether Cecilia Johnson was part of larger conspiracy to kill Melody and Jessica Wuertz. Even Brain Fingerprinting offers no help.

In theory, Dr. Farwell once could have determined whether Cecilia Johnson recognized the probes that Jimmy Ray Slaughter did not. But, that is no longer possible. For, one month after Slaughter was indicted, Cecilia Johnson committed suicide.

Even without the ability to Brain Fingerprint Cecilia Johnson, the question of whether science has anything to say about guilt or innocence in this case has taken on added urgency. For just as Dr. Farwell was testing Jimmy Ray Slaughter, the most compelling scientific evidence presented at trial was being discredited.

Based on expert scientific testimony, the state argued at trial that the bullets that killed Melody and Jessica Wuertz came from a box of ammunition found in Slaughter's home. But in February, 2004, the National Academies of Science found that while the underlying science of bullet matching was sound, claims like the one made at Slaughter's trial, were not. The report concluded that there was no foundation to ever say that a crime-scene bullet came from a particular box of ammunition. Such testimony, the NAS found, would violate federal rules of evidence.

Robert Jackson: I think today the State would have to go to trial without that evidence. Don't think it would be admitted at all.

Narrator: Bullet matching is not the first forensic science to be hailed and then later discredited. Hair comparison, arson analysis, even fingerprinting have all recently come under assault. The question is: will this also be true for Brain Fingerprinting?

There is little argument about the scientific foundation of Brain Fingerprinting. Decades of research and hundreds of peer-reviewed papers support the validity of the p300. But as with any science, Brain Fingerprinting is only as reliable as the methods with which it is applied. In the case of Jimmy Ray Slaughter, Dr. Farwell has stated that Brain Fingerprinting conclusively proves Slaughter does not know four salient facts of the crime.

Jimmy Ray Slaughter: Where inside the house the infant victim was shot.

Narrator: Details the killer would have to know.

Jimmy Ray Slaughter: By bathroom door, in utility room, or near kitchen table. The room where the adult victim's body was located? Bedroom, Dining Room, Kitchen. The position on the floor where the adult victim's body was lying? Arm over pillow, feet under table, head towards bed. What was printed on the front of the adult victim's t-shirt? Football team logo, rainbow pattern or rock group photo.

Narrator: But it is here, in the construction of the Brain Fingerprinting test, where Dr. Farwell's claims begin to break down. "The Lost Boys" -- the picture printed on Melody Wuertz's t-shirt -- is not a rock group, as Dr. Farwell believed. The Lost Boys is a movie. Upon closer examination, this probe tells us nothing about Jimmy Ray Slaughter's guilt or innocence.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: We actually made an error, and what we did to correct for that is simply to eliminate those data. That doesn't, in any way, invalidate the rest of the test which showed things which were very relevant to the crime, and which, to the best of our knowledge were in fact salient features of the actual crime that happened.

Narrator: Not surprisingly, the subjective selection of the probes is exactly where the state will seek to undermine the scientific validity of Brain Fingerprinting.

C. Wesley Lane: The trial of the State vs. Jimmy Ray Slaughter was a case, in fact that even now, is the longest case in Oklahoma state history. It took five months to try that case. It involved hundreds of exhibits, using the latest in technology to be able to display those things. We were able to take a photograph and blow them up on TV monitors all over the court room, TV monitors right in front of Mr. Slaughter.

And so, the photographs not only were present in the courtroom, but in the discovery process the photographs and all of the State's evidence were turned over to the defense, which the defense went over with Mr. Slaughter -- all of what they knew the prospective State's exhibits were to be.

The same photographs that jurors winced at when they were displayed up on big TV screens in the courtroom. And so, everybody in that courtroom would be able to take this test, and we would all recognize it. Doesn't prove we've killed anybody. But we have seen these pictures. We've seen this information. We've heard all of it. Mr. Slaughter absolutely causes me to have great and grave questions about this Brain Fingerprinting process.

Because, in fact he's actually done a test of the unreliability of this because we actually know, for a fact, that Mr. Slaughter -- even if you wanted to think him innocent, even if, even if he were innocent of this, which of course we do not believe, but even if he were innocent of this he would have been exposed just like I was, the judge was, twelve jurors and multiple alternates, we would all know where Melody Wuertz was lying, what happened to her, how it was done. And so for Mr. Slaughter under this test to say, well he didn't know, I think Dr. Farwell has actually kind of shot himself in the foot.

Narrator: How is it that Jimmy Ray Slaughter did not get a p300 for evidence presented at his trial? Does that result show, as the state has argued, that Brain Fingerprinting is junk science? Dr. Farwell obviously believes otherwise. For him, the results of Jimmy Ray Slaughter's Brain Fingerprint actually demonstrate the reliability of his science.

Dr. Lawrence Farwell: The results in the Slaughter case actually prove the science right there. Because we're clearly getting a p300 murmur response to the targets, to the things he knows. When he knows something, there's the response. And we're clearly not getting that response to the irrelevants. We're also not getting it to the probes.

Now, is anybody surprised that Slaughter doesn't know every detail of the trial he sat through? Sixty thousand pages of information? Of course he doesn't know all those things. The question a jury has to ask is, are we going to find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt when he doesn't know these salient features of the crime that the perpetrator experienced. Not heard about, in a diagram somewhere, but directly experienced.

Shooting an infant, outside the bathroom, in a home he knew. Torturing, stabbing, and leaving a woman's body in a bedroom that he knew quite well, a woman he knew quite well. And where that was in the bedroom. Is a jury going to conclude that a person could commit that crime and not even know it? That's up to a jury. Is it reasonable to conclude that somebody might have sat through a trial where something like that might have showed up in a diagram and not know it? Of course it's reasonable.

Narrator: On March 21st, 2004, the United States Supreme Court denied Jimmy Ray Slaughter's appeal. That same day the Oklahoma District Attorney asked the Criminal Court of Appeals to set an execution date. Robert Jackson has petitioned the Oklahoma courts to admit Brain Fingerprinting as new evidence of innocence, but as May 4, 2004, no decision has yet been made. In fact, Dr. Farwell may be denied a day in court to argue his findings.

But in the coming months and years there will certainly be fierce debate over Brain Fingerprinting. Is it solid science, or does it rely too heavily on the subjectivity of its inventor? Should it be used as an investigative tool by the police? Is it reliable enough to be admitted into a court of law? Dr. Farwell has a backlog of over 400 cases awaiting his attention. Eventually, he will have to make his own case before a judge or jury; it is then that Brain Fingerprinting's fate will ultimately be decided.

[Title card: As of May 4, 2004, no execution date has been set for Jimmy Ray Slaughter]


Narrated By

Written, Produced and Directed by



Series Producer



Sound Recordists




Post Production Services

On-line Editor

Post Producer

Audio Post-Production Services

Sound Editor

Re-Recording Mixer

Special Thanks


Series Open and Additional Graphics

Creative Consultant


Series Open and Additional Graphics



Production Assistants

Post-Production Supervisor

Production Manager

Associate Producer

Field Producer

Science Editor

Series Associate Producer

Executive in Charge

Executive Producer

A Viewfinder Productions production for Thirteen/WNET New York in association with Carlton International

© 2004 Educational Broadcasting Corporation and Carlton International

INNOVATION was produced by Thirteen/WNET New York, which is solely responsible for its content.

Be more inspired. Help bring programs like INNOVATION to your PBS station ... pledge online!
E-mail this page
ask the experts for teachers resources about the series sitemap
INNOVATION Online is a production of Thirteen WNET New York. Copyright 2004 Educational Broadcasting Corporation.