Dr. Martin Orne; Hypnosis Expert Detected Hillside Strangler Ruse
Dr. Martin T. Orne, whose expertise in lie detection, coercion and the limits of hypnosis led to roles in such prominent criminal trials as the Hillside Strangler murder case and the 1974 prosecution of Patty Hearst for bank robbery, died Feb. 11 of cancer in Paoli, Pa. He was 72.
Orne’s primary interest was in hypnosis and memory distortion. His research was cited in more than 30 cases by state supreme courts and the U.S. Supreme Court and led to widely adopted guidelines restricting the use of testimony resulting from hypnosis in criminal cases.
A professor emeritus of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, Orne believed that hypnosis could be a valuable therapeutic tool. But he found that hypnosis typically increases false memories more than it induces accurate ones.
That finding made its use dangerous in court, he argued, because it could lead a witness to give convincing testimony of imagined events.
“A hypnotized person can read tomorrow’s stock page to you. The only problem is,” he said in a 1987 interview with The Times, “you’d go broke if you believed it.”
Orne’s expertise in hypnosis played a pivotal role in the 1981 trial of Kenneth Bianchi, the former security guard who confessed to killing five women in the Hillside Strangler case of the late 1970s.
Attorneys for Bianchi argued that he suffered from multiple personalities that emerged during hypnosis by several trained experts.
Two of the experts told the court that Bianchi was faking. One of them was Orne, then director of Pennsylvania Hospital’s Institute for Experimental Psychiatry.
Orne had tricked Bianchi using a so-called double hallucination test when Bianchi appeared to be under hypnosis. It involved introducing Bianchi to his attorney, who was not actually present. Nevertheless, Bianchi shook hands with the imaginary attorney and engaged him in conversation.
Then Orne had the actual lawyer enter the room, which flustered the admitted serial killer and caused him to explain that the imagined attorney had disappeared. His anxiety and statement that one of the “two” lawyer figures had inexplicably vanished convinced Orne that he was not telling the truth.
The Los Angeles County Superior Court judge assigned to the case, now state Supreme Court Justice Ronald M. George, subsequently ruled that Bianchi had faked hypnosis and feigned his multiple personalities. He said he based his ruling in part on Orne’s testimony, citing his credentials as the most impressive of the six specialists who examined the murderer.
Orne also had been a defense expert for Hearst, the heiress who stood trial in 1976 for taking part in a bank robbery after being captured by members of the Symbionese Liberation Army.
He testified that during his examination of Hearst he was “very concerned about faking” and had sought to detect whether she was falsifying her version of the 19 months she spent with the SLA. He gave her many opportunities to exaggerate, backpedal or fabricate but found, to his surprise, that she “just didn’t pick up on the cues. . . . Miss Hearst,” he said, “really simply didn’t lie.”
He said he believed she was only following orders when she participated in the robbery. Convinced of her innocence, he recently urged that she be pardoned.
Orne’s reputation was attacked in 1991 when it was revealed that he had allowed a biographer of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Anne Sexton access to audiotapes of his therapy sessions with her in the 1960s.
Sexton, who committed suicide in 1974, wrote confessional poetry, much of which was drawn from her troubled life that included more than 20 hospitalizations, 10 suicide attempts and extramarital affairs. When she entered therapy with Orne, who was then on the faculty at Harvard, she was a Boston housewife. He encouraged her to write poetry as part of her therapy and taped their sessions to help her remember their content and advance her treatment.
Sexton wrote a poem to him in 1962, in which she said, “But you, my doctor, my enthusiast, were better than Christ; you promised me another world to tell me who I was.”
Orne released the tapes only after five years of prodding by the biographer, Diane Wood Middlebrook, and with the blessing of Sexton’s daughter and literary executor, Linda Gray Sexton.
He was heavily criticized by mental health professionals, who believed that his action set a dangerous precedent and violated widely adopted guidelines that confidential medical records not be made public without the patient’s explicit permission.
Orne was even attacked in a New York Times editorial, which accused him of betraying Sexton and dishonoring his profession.
He responded in an opinion piece in that newspaper: “Sharing her most intimate thoughts and feelings for the benefit of others was not only her expressed and enacted desire, but the purpose for which she lived.”
Orne, who was born in Vienna, received his medical degree from Tufts University in 1955 and a doctorate in psychology from Harvard in 1958. He was a professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia for 32 years before retiring in 1996.
He is survived by his wife and longtime research collaborator, Emily Carota Orne, two children and a brother.