Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

TV show denied access to inmates

'Lie Detector' lacked gravity, officials say

Posted: Dec. 29, 2004

Madison - With more and more television shows clamoring for a chance to interview convicts behind bars, state Department of Corrections officials have found themselves staring at the blurred line between news and entertainment.

"48 Hour Mystery," hosted by award-winning reporter Leslie Stahl on CBS, was given access. "Lie Detector," a show that sought to give polygraph tests to three Wisconsin inmates maintaining their innocence, wasn't.

That prompted an outcry from the producers of "Lie Detector," the new version of a 1960s show that seeks to determine whether notorious people are truthful or artful liars.

"It was determined that is entertainment, rather than news," department spokesman Bill Clausius said of the decision to deny "Lie Detector" access to inmates.

Ralph Andrews, one of the producers of "Lie Detector," said department officials had misunderstood the show.

He described the program as " '60 Minutes' with a twist" and said it is comparable to offerings on Court TV.

"None of these prisoners are going to sing or dance or do anything remotely connected to entertainment.. . . Entertainment is 'American Idol' and any dramatic series, but when you're dealing with real people, real lives, life and death situations, to call that entertaining is sick," Andrews said.

The department's decision has left some with ties to the show wondering whether Deputy Corrections Secretary Rick Raemisch has a conflict of interest, because he led two investigations as Dane County sheriff that "Lie Detector" is interested in.

Getting at the truth

The latest version of "Lie Detector" will air as a weekly show on Pax TV starting in March. The show has had many incarnations since the 1960s, most recently in 1998 as a one-hour special on Fox.

In it, people have their claims tested by polygraph expert Ed Gelb.

The decision to keep the TV crew out of the prisons, first reported by Madison weekly newspaper Isthmus, was made by Raemisch after officials watched a tape of the 1998 special, Clausius said.

On the special, hosted by O.J. Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark, the claims of innocence by a Florida teenager convicted of manslaughter were found to be true, as was Jeff Gillooly's contention that ex-wife Tonya Harding had a hand in the plot to attack fellow Olympic skater Nancy Kerrigan.

On that episode, James Nichols, brother of Oklahoma City bombing conspirator Terry Nichols, failed a test when he said he knew nothing of that plot.

Recently, the "48 Hours Mystery" crew was allowed to interview Wisconsin inmate John Maloney, a former cop convicted of killing his wife and who maintains he is innocent. That program was granted access to the prison because it is connected to the news division of CBS, Clausius said. "Lie Detector" has no ties to an established news outlet.

Sheila Berry, an advocate for wrongly imprisoned inmates, said "Lie Detector" was similar to "48 Hours Mystery" and other prime-time news shows that use entertainment-programming devices to attract their audiences.

She called Raemisch's role in the decision-making unfair.

"I think that's a conflict," she said.

Berry, the director of Richmond, Va.-based Truth in Justice, helped Andrews identify inmates who may be wrongly incarcerated.

During his tenure as sheriff from 1990 to 1997, Raemisch headed the investigations into two of the people the producers wanted to test: Penny Brummer, who is serving a life sentence for killing a friend in 1994; and Audrey Edmunds, who is serving an 18-year sentence for the 1995 death of an infant in her care.

Raemisch was on vacation Wednesday and unavailable for comment. Clausius called his connection to the cases as a former sheriff "irrelevant" to the decision to bar the TV crew.

The third case "Lie Detector" wanted to examine was that of Mark Price, who is serving a life sentence for murder.

Price was prosecuted by Winnebago District Attorney Joe Paulus, who has since been convicted of tax evasion and taking bribes from a defense attorney. Berry, of Truth in Justice, served as director of Paulus' victim/witness assistance program from 1988 to 1990.

Denial too harsh

Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Madison) said he had no reason to suspect Raemisch was trying to block a look into his investigations as sheriff. But the public may begin to look for ulterior reasons for the decision because the department's logic in denying the show's request does not make sense, said Pocan, who tried to help the producers get inside the prisons.

"When you deny something without really substantial reasons, it looks like you're trying to hide something, and that usually raises questions about the cases," he said.

The department has become more open in recent years but on occasion reverts to a "Pentagon-like mentality" of secrecy, Pocan said.

He was initially told the "Lie Detector" crew would be disruptive, though the department backed off on that claim after learning a three-person team was all that was needed. The department also has raised concerns about how the tests would affect the victims' families.

While the upcoming season will not feature the three inmates, it may include a piece on a Wisconsin native.

Andrews, the producer, said he hopes to give a polygraph test to Laurie Bembenek, a former Milwaukee police officer and Playboy bunny convicted of a 1981 murder. Bembenek, who gained nationwide attention in 1990 for her escape from prison, has long maintained her innocence.

Mark Price
Penny Brummer
Police/Prosecutor Misconduct
Truth in Justice