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Dancing Eyebrows, Amanda Knox, and Jerry Hobbs: Assessing Guilt Based On Body Language Is a Dangerous Game

There's no place for such conjecture testimony in the court system or the court of public opinion. It may make for great television but it is not science.
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There's a running joke in my family about my dancing left eyebrow. It seems that every time I am interviewed on camera, my left eyebrow begins to arch and moves further up my brow, creating a small river of wrinkles on one side of my forehead. It's a completely involuntary response. In fact, as I sit here staring at my computer screen and consciously trying to raise my left eyebrow, I can't do it. My wife and kids no longer pay any attention to what I have to say when I am interviewed -- they just wait for the eyebrow to start dancing and crack up. You can watch the eyebrow in action yourself in this clip of me online from a decade ago.

I hadn't thought of my dancing eyebrow until I watched Amanda Knox's interview with Chris Cuomo on CNN last week. Let's get this out of the way -- I believe strongly in Amanda's innocence and have explained why in earlier a Huffington Post column. But what interested me was not the substance of her interview but the so-called "experts" who lined up afterwards to suggest that she was guilty based on their analyses of her body language. One such "expert" even cited Knox's "raised eyebrow" as evidence that Knox was being disingenuous.

This obsessive focus on Knox's body language led me think of Jerry Hobbs. Hobbs' case, one of the most infamous in the annals of false confessions, was in the news recently when a federal court jury in Virginia sentenced ex-Marine Jorge Torrez to death for the murder of Navy Petty Officer Amanda Snell. DNA evidence linking Torrez to the murder and sexual assault of Hobbs' nine year-old daughter and her eight year-old friend on Mother's Day 2005 -- the very same evidence that ultimately exonerated Hobbs -- was used by federal prosecutors to persuade jurors to sentence Torrez to death. Hobbs is relevant to this discussion because he was arrested -- not on the basis of his confession or any physical evidence linking him to the murders -- but on the same body language bunk that's being used to condemn Amanda Knox. With Mother's Day approaching, it's a good time to revisit the Hobbs case and to tell this untold chapter of of Hobbs's case.

Mother's Day in 2005 was a beautiful, unseasonably hot day with temperatures in the Chicago area rising into the 80's. In Zion, IL., a suburb to the North of Chicago on Lake Michigan, Jerry Hobbs decided to celebrate by taking his children to the beach. Recently reunited with his family after a stint in a Texas prison, Hobbs wanted to spend some quality time with his kids, especially nine year-old Laura, with whom he was especially close. After a fun outing flying kites, the family returned home. Laura left to meet up with her best friend Krystal Tobias to go for a bike ride. The two girls were last seen in the early evening hours in a heavily wooded area of Beulah Park in Zion.

When the girls didn't return home, the police were notified and Jerry and other family and friends searched frantically throughout the night for the girls with no success. The next day, about 7:20 a.m., however, Jerry found one of the girl's bikes, and soon thereafter stumbled upon the girls' dead bodies just off a wooded bike path in the park. He immediately alerted the police. Although he had not slept night before, Hobbs agreed to accompany the police back to the station. Twenty one hours later, after a relentless all night long interrogation, Hobbs broke down and confessed to the killings.

News of Hobbs's arrest spread like a wildfire. Within hours, Lake County State's Attorney Mike Waller held a press conference, announcing that Hobbs had been charged with the girls' murders. Waller was tightlipped about the evidence but did let slip that it was Hobbs's reaction to questions that "piqued the officers interest to question him further."

Almost immediately, two mugshots of Hobbs were released to the press and details of his past crimes were splashed all over the Chicago papers and on national television. On the evening of Hobbs' arrest, CNN commentator Nancy Grace all but convicted Hobbs on the air, remarking that she was so sure that Hobbs would be proven guilty that she would "eat a dirt sandwich" if he did not turn out to be the killer.

The demonization of Hobbs escalated as the fact that he had confessed and the details of his confession became public. At Hobbs's bond hearing on May 11, Assistant State's Attorney Jeff Pavletic, revealed the contents of Hobbs's confession. According to Pavletic, Hobbs had "slaughtered the girls," punching Laura and then stabbing both girls over and over again in the eyes. Hobbs purportedly told police that he was angry at Laura because she had taken some money from her mother without asking. He stabbed Krystal when she pulled a "potato knife" on him while trying to defend Laura. In arguing that Hobbs should be denied bond, Pavletic told the court that Hobbs' rage was so extreme that the knife wounds "went through Laura Hobbs's neck and into her spine." It came as no surprise then, in November 2005, when Lake County State's Attorney Mike Waller announced that he would to seek the death penalty against Hobbs.

To the public, news that Hobbs had confessed made the case against Hobbs seem open and shut. But behind the scenes, the case against Hobbs was falling apart. My first glimpse of this came after Hobbs's defense attorneys filed a motion to quash Hobbs' arrest and suppress his confession.

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution prevents the government from seizing and detaining a person without "probable cause" -- some evidence that a crime was committed and that detained person committed the crime. The stakes were high for both sides at the hearing on Hobbs's motion. If the Court found that Hobbs was "seized" -- kept under circumstances where he was not free to leave -- without probable cause, not only would Hobbs's arrest have been invalidated, but his confession would have been suppressed because the confession was a direct result of Hobb's prolonged detention and interrogation. In most cases, demonstrating "probable cause" is a cakewalk for prosecutors. But in Hobbs's case, they had no hard evidence, just hunches and suspicions.

To create the illusion of probable cause, prosecutors pointed to Hobb's prior criminal record, the fact that Hobbs found the bodies, that Hobbs did not act as an "ostensibly concerned father" should have when he did not rush over to the girls' bodies to check for a pulse, and that when children are murdered, parents frequently are involved. But this is not evidence that Hobbs killed his daughter; it is rank speculation. Hobbs had no record of violence toward children; innocent people are just as likely to discover bodies as guilty people; there are plenty of innocent explanations for why Hobbs might not have wanted to approach the ghastly crime scene; and many children are killed by strangers.

So to fill in the blanks of their case, detectives relied on their extensive training in human lie detection. They testified about Hobbs's many deceptive behaviors during the interrogation,

• that Hobbs said "I didn't kill them girls" (refusing to name the girls meant he was guilty)
• that Hobbs frequently "covered his face with his hands";
• that he would "drop his hands" only when detectives switched topics away from the girls
• that he "turned away from detectives when they asked about the girls"
• that he "slid to the end of the chair, placing himself as far away as possible from the
officers at one point;

Again, this is just more speculation. Despite their lack of any real evidence to justify their lengthy detention of Hobbs, Lake County prosecutors were bailed out when the judge held that Hobbs was never "seized." The court also held that even if Hobbs were not free to leave, "it was reasonable for police to infer that Hobbs had committed the crime based on his behaviors and the police interpretation of them."

We know now that it was anything but reasonable for the police, prosecutors and the judge to rely on Hobbs's verbal and non-verbal behavior to detain him and interrogate him until he confessed. Once they got the confession, tunnelvision took over and they stopped investigating even after the evidence gathered from the crime scenes failed to match to Hobbs and the details of his confession did not line up with new DNA that suggested the crime was sexually motivated.

Meanwhile, while Hobbs was languishing in jail, Torrez was free to rape and kill other women. After killing Laura and Krystal, Torrez fled the area and joined the Marines. He served two years in Okinawa and then settled in Northern Virginia. He soon began to stalk and sexually assault women in Arlington, Va., including a college student who he abducted, tied up, assaulted, and left in a snow bank after choking her to the point of unconsciousness. Petty Officer Snell had the misfortune of living a few doors down from Torrez in the barracks. He strangled her with a laptop cord while she slept.

There are many experts who claim that they have developed reliable methods of detecting deception. But the truth is that human beings are poor lie detectors. And there are reams of research and many examples in the annals of wrongful convictions that prove this point. "Advanced training" doesn't appear to make police officers or others any better at detecting deception; it only gives them a false sense of confidence in their abilities. There is no one gesture, involuntary facial expression, muscle twitch, or set of such behaviors that proves that a person is lying. Many of the same behaviors that are classified as deceptive are a response to stress as I suspect is the reason for my eyebrow dancing.

The moral of the Hobbs's story is that it is never reasonable for police, judges or any other so-called experts to infer a suspect's guilt based on behavior cues. There's no place for such conjecture testimony in the court system or the court of public opinion. It may make for great television but it is not science.

Moreover, allowing "experts" to opine about the credibility of criminal defendants on air can also prejudice a defendant's right to a fair trial. Even worse, encouraging law enforcement officers to rely on "raised eyebrows" and "covered faces" can lead police to arrest the innocent while allowing the guilty to go free.

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