Perry Raymond Russo was a witness willing to give Garrison's investigators the testimony they wanted.

Perry Raymond Russo's Hypnosis

Making Testimony More Objective?

Jim Garrison claimed that he used Sodium Pentothal and hypnosis to "objectify" the testimony of Perry Raymond Russo. Russo was Garrison's key witness in his prosecution of Clay Shaw for conspiring to assassinate John Kennedy. At the Clay Shaw trial, he told a story of "Bertrand" (Shaw, supposedly), David Ferrie, and Lee Oswald at an "assassination party" in September of 1963. All three, in Russo's account, were discussing how to kill Kennedy.

But before he ever testified in court, his testimony was "objectified." The first step in the process, after Russo had been interviewed several times by Garrison's investigators, was the administration of Sodium Pentothal (claimed to be "truth serum") at Mercy Hospital in New Orleans. Under the influence of the drug, Russo told a story of an "assassination party" with David Ferrie talking about killing Kennedy. This story differed from his later testimony in that it had only Ferrie (and not "Bertrand" and Oswald) talking about killing Kennedy. And it differed from his earlier testimony in that his earlier statements had not mentioned any "assassination party" at all!

But since his testimony had been "objectified" by "truth serum" his Mercy Hospital account must be the truth, right?

The Truth About "Truth Serum"

When it was revealed that Sodium Pentothal had been used on Russo, several mental health professionals spoke up. A typical response came from Dr. Edwin A. Weinstein of the Washington School of Psychiatry. In a letter to the Washington Post he explained:
Orleans Parish Coroner Nicholas Chetta, in endorsing the use of hypnosis and "truth serum" (Sodium Pentothal) to enable witness [Perry] Russo to recall his meeting with Lee Oswald, states that these procedures "help the individual to recall things, remember things and reveal things he might to care to reveal."

Dr. Chetta is grossly distorting the medical facts. Under the influence of Sodium Pentothal, subjects may give highly fictional accounts of past events and describe incidents that never happened. The drug is not a "truth serum." Its action on recall is profoundly influenced by the stress of the situation in which it is administered and the relationship between the subject and his questioners. The confabulation is a metaphorical, dramatic representation of some personal wish, fear or guilt quite unrelated to the purported issue. Russo's "memory" of Oswald may well be a personification of his own problems, which could include his relationships with the New Orleans authorities. Under these circumstances, Dr. Chetta is hardly introducing scientific evidence. (The Washington Post, March 27, 1967)

Testimony "Refreshed" by Hypnosis

After the use of "truth serum," Russo was put under hypnosis and questioned. His story under hypnosis got even "better," as it continued to include the "assassination party" at Ferrie's apartment, but now included Clay Shaw (as "Bertrand") taking part in the assassination planning. But if "truth serum" is suspect as a means of inducing reliable testimony, hypnosis hardly fares better.

The problems with hypnosis as a means of helping a witness "recall" things that will later be repeated in trial testimony were well-known in 1969, and in the years since they have increasingly been recognized by courts, which frequently refuse to allow such testimony to even be introduced. What are these problems?


The American Medical Association's Encyclopedia of Medicine (Random House, 1989) defines "Hypnosis" as "A trancelike state of altered awareness that is characterized by extreme suggestibility." But well before 1989, the nature of hypnosis was known. Ainslie Meares, President of the International Society for Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, wrote in Hypnosis in Modern Medicine (Edited by Jerome Schneck, 3rd Edition, 1962):
In our everyday clinical practice there is no doubt that the increased suggestibility is the most conspicuous feature of the hypnotized patient. We offer the suggestion; the patient carries it out. There is no need to evoke esoteric concepts . . . . We can see that many of the complex phenomena of hypnosis such as the amnesia and the regression can be produced in direct response to suggestion. The wide acceptance of [this] theory can be easily demonstrated by merely asking a few medical colleagues what is hypnosis. The majority will quickly answer that hypnosis is a state of increased suggestibility. (p. 392)
Likewise, George H. Estabrooks, in the then-standard textbook Hypnotism (New York, E. P. Dutton & Company, 1957, p. 24) noted:
So the first concept we get of hypnotism is that curious picture of an unconscious mind controlled by the conscious mind of the operator. The subject will accept any suggestion the operator gives, within certain limits . . . .

In fact, suggestion appears to be the key of hypnotism. It is the method by which the hypnotist first gains his control and unseats the normal conscious mind. After this, he finds that his only way of controlling the subject is again through suggestion, for the subject left to himself will generally do nothing at all. He acts and behaves as if in normal sleep.

Dr. Jay Katz, Professor (Adjunct) of Law and Psychiatry at Yale University and Attending Psychiatrist at the Yale New Haven Medical Center, gave a sworn affidavit to the Clay Shaw defense team on the dangers of testimony obtained under hypnosis. What he had to say was consistent with more recent work, including the authoritative "Hypnotically Induced Testimony" by Martin T. Orne, David A. Soskis, David F. Dinges, and Emily Carota Orne, in Gary L. Wells and Elizabeth F. Loftus, Eyewitness Testimony: Psychological Perspectives (Cambridge University Press, 1984). Orne, et al. point out that:

By allowing the hypnotist to define what it to be experienced, the hypnotized individual foregoes evaluation both of the nature of the suggestion and his or her reaction to it. Given a suggestion that is acceptable within the hypnotic context, subjects will attempt to respond without concern for whether the suggestion is logical or meaningful. Their increased willingness to accept suggestions in hypnosis inevitably requires that for the time they suspend critical judgment." (p. 174)

Following the hypnotic induction, the subject's attention is intensely focused on the hypnotist, and there is an increased tendency to please the hypnotist and to comply with both explicit and implicit demands in the hypnotic context. (p. 175)

Sometimes hypnotized subjects can be sensitive to very subtle suggestions. Particularly interesting things happen during hypnotic "regression" when subjects are told to mentally return to an earlier time — which might be a few days ago, or might be during their childhood. In one famous experiment:
True found that subjects who were age regressed to their 10th birthday accurately reported the day of the week in 93% of the cases. When age regressed to their 7th birthday, subjects were 82% accurate, and when age regressed to their 4th birthday, they were still 69% accurate. Because almost no one can recall, without hypnosis, the day of the week of even their 10th birthday, this appeared to be a simple and compelling demonstration of hypnotic hypermnesia [enhanced memory]. When several laboratories tried to replicate the finding, however, they were unable to do so. (p. 181)
How True could get such impressive findings, while other researchers could not was revealed when True explained that subjects were not asked "what day of the week is it" when regressed to their fourth birthday. Rather, they were asked "Was it Monday? Was it Tuesday? Was it Wednesday?" Subjects were asked to stop the researcher when the correct day was reached. However, the researcher had a perpetual calendar available when asking the questions, and thus knew what the right answer was.

The notion that subjects were simply responding to subtle suggestions from the researcher was reinforced when another researcher went out and asked 10 bright 4-year-old children the day of the week. None of them knew. If real 4-year-olds don't know what day of the week it is, it's hard to see how adults "regressed" to the age of four years could know what day of the week it is. (Orne, et al., pp. 181-182)


What will a hypnotized subject do if the hypnotist suggests that he describe a scene that he has not in fact experienced? In a waking state, most witnesses would simply deny having witnessed the scene. But under the influence of hypnosis, the witness is likely to supply a plausible-sounding account, consisting of disparate elements in his memory. Again quoting Orne, et al.:
If during hypnosis, an individual is asked to "look at" an event 100 yards away using hallucinated binoculars he or she may describe in detail the pattern on the necktie of a participant in that event, despite the fact that such a "perception" exceeds the limits of visual acuity. Needless to say, the pattern may have nothing to do with the individual's necktie unless the hypnotized person had an opportunity to see it previously. Without prior information of such details, the hypnotized subject will nonetheless respond to the suggestion to observe with binoculars by hallucinating or imagining details of the event. This kind of filling in or fantasizing of information that seems plausible is called confabulation. (p. 177)

The hypnotic suggestion to relive a past event, particularly when accompanied by questions about specific details, puts pressure on the subject to provide information for which few, if any, actual memories are available. This situation may jog the subject's memory and produce some increased recall, but it will also cause the subject to fill in details that are plausible but consist of memories or fantasies from other times. It is extremely difficult to know which aspects of hypnotically aided recall are historically accurate and which aspects have been confabulated. The details of material that is confabulated depend upon the subject's total past experience and all available cues relevant to the hypnotic task. Subjects will use prior information and cues in an inconsistent and unpredictable fashion; in some instances such information is incorporated in what is confabulated, while in others the hypnotic recall may be virtually unaffected. (p. 181)

Many different sorts of elements can be introduced into an account through confabulation. Orne, et. al. describe a situation particularly relevant to the prosecution of Clay Shaw:
The extreme case in terms of risk of miscarriage of justice is that in which hypnosis is used to "refresh" a witness's or victim's memory about aspects of a crime that are presumed or known to the authorities, the media, or the hypnotist. In such cases, a "memory" can be created in hypnosis where none existed before, and the witness's memory may be irreversibly contaminated. The hypnotic subject may obtain information about the event from the media, from comments made prior to, during, or after an interrogation, or during the hypnotic session itself. . . . there is a significant likelihood that this information will form the basis of confabulation and will become inextricably intertwined with the witness's or victim's own memories of the event. (p. 196)

By the time he was put under hypnosis, Russo had had plenty of opportunity to infer what kind of testimony Garrison's staff wanted. Russo admitted to journalist James Phelan that he had "picked up a lot of information from Garrison's people just from the way they asked questions. I'm a pretty perceptive guy, and besides, when they got through asking me questions, I asked them a lot of questions — like 'Why is this man important,' and so on" (Scandals, Scamps, and Scoundrels, p. 165).

If that wasn't bad enough, the hypnosis sessions were badly conducted by a hypnotist who had no training in techniques of avoiding suggestion and confabulation. Phelan interviewed the hypnotist, Dr. Esmond Fatter, whom he described as "a genial old family doctor with no background whatever in the technique of using hypnosis to elicit criminal testimony." Fatter told Phelan that he used the earlier Sodium Pentothal session as a guide in questioning Russo under hypnosis. Fatter comes across as a bumbler, rather than a knave, and he admitted to Phelan that he "certainly would hate to see anyone taken to trial on what Russo had said in a trance"(Scandals, Scamps, and Scoundrels, p. 154).

But that's exactly what happened.

False Memories

All of this might be innocent enough if the suggestibility and confabulation was limited to the actual hypnosis session, with the effects disappearing when the subject wakes. Unfortunately, things visualized during hypnosis remain in the memory, and may come to be experienced by the witness as real memories. According to Orne, et al., "Regardless of how the suggestions of enhanced recall are phrased (e.g., watching the events on an imaginary television screen, or actually reliving the events), the subject will typically accept the hypnotically created recollections — accurate and inaccurate — as actual memories." (p. 174) And further:
Finally, perhaps most disturbing in the increased tendency of hypnotized subjects to be influenced or biased is not the potential for increased inaccurate remembrances but, rather, the extent to which memories created during hypnosis are confounded with earlier recollections and the extent to which hypnosis increases the subject's conviction that his or her memories — regardless of their accuracy or source — are reliable. (p. 192)
One interesting experiment asked hypnotized subjects whether they had, early one morning, been awakened by a loud noise. It had been determined that all slept soundly through the night in question. But many of the subjects accepted the suggestion, and reported that they did indeed hear some such noise. And strikingly, after being awakened from hypnosis, they continued to insist that they had heard a loud noise. (p. 191) Orne, et al. conclude: "Thus, the memories created by the leading question in hypnosis were experienced as if they were preexisting recollections that were unrelated to the hypnotic experience." (p. 191)

Increased Post-Hypnotic Certainty

In any trial, the degree of certainty of a witness is an important factor. Witnesses who tell their story with confidence and self-assurance are more likely to be believed by juries, and to stand up well under cross-examination. Witnesses who have rehearsed their testimony under hypnosis are likely to be more confident on the stand. If hypnosis produced a general increase in the accuracy of testimony, this would be well justified. Unfortunately, witnesses under hypnosis will typically produce both an increase in accurately recalled details, and an increase in inaccurate information resulting from suggestion or confabulation. According to Orne, et al.:
. . . once a series of details is reported by the subject and accepted as valid by the hypnotist, that very fact can serve to persuade the subject to accept these "recollections" as accurate — memories that might previously have been extremely tentative and about which the subject had little or no subjective conviction, or memories that might have been created during hypnosis. (p. 176)

When a witness is instructed to guess about the details of an event, these guesses not only later tend to be reported as part of the original memory, but the witness may later be more confident about their accuracy. Similarly, witnesses who are briefed (before testifying) about former recollections become more confident of these recollections, especially when they were originally inaccurate. (p. 193)

The more the altered memories are reported, the more firmly established they become to the witness, and the more difficult they become to challenge under cross-examination.

Hypnosis in Other Contexts

The issue of whether previously "repressed" memories may be "recovered" through hypnosis became particularly pressing in the 1980s, by which time many therapists were using hypnosis to help troubled adult clients "recover" memories of childhood sexual abuse.

Recommended Books

Three fine books expose the abuses of therapists who hypnotize patients and help them "recover" childhood memories:

Since these stories typically described abuse of girls by their fathers and other males, they fit neatly into the feminist way of viewing the world. And since charges of sexual abuse have often been a tactic used against fathers in child custody battles, the issue has become politicized. Thus a good debunking of "recovered memories" can be found on the anti-feminist web site The Domain of Patriarchy. But sober professional organizations have joined in the fray, insisting that any such "recovered memories" should be viewed with extreme caution. For example, the American Medical Association has declared that:

The AMA considers recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse to be of uncertain authenticity, which should be subject to external verification. The use of recovered memories is fraught with problems of potential misapplication. (Sub. Res. 504, A-93; Modified by: CSA Rep. 5-A-94)
And the nation's top researcher on memory, Elizabeth F. Loftus, insists that accounts of "recovered memory" are not to be trusted.

"Recovering" Memories of Alien Abduction

Yet another class of "recovered memories" involves abduction by aliens. The classic abduction case was that of Betty and Barney Hill, who in 1961 were driving from Canada back to their home in New Hampshire. Near Lancaster, they saw a UFO — or at least something that both interpreted as a UFO. They also experienced (or later came to believe they experienced) "missing time" during their drive, which had taken two hours longer than it should have.

Web Sources on the Hill Case

Betty then became an avid reader of UFO literature, while Barney began to develop ailments including ulcers, high blood pressure, and exhaustion.

Under the care of a Boston therapist, first Barney and then Betty underwent "regressive hypnosis" in an attempt to find out what had really happened that night. Under hypnosis, both told a similar story of being abducted by aliens (Peter Brookesmith, UFO: The Complete Sightings, Barnes & Boble Books, 1995, pp. 74-75). The effect of this was electric. As Brookesmith recounts:

The story of Betty and Barney Hill's abduction on 19 September 1961 broke only in 1966, with the publication of John G. Fuller's The Interrupted Journey. It took both ufology and the general public by storm, for it seemed to be the first case of its kind. Serious ufologists were confounded . . . . But the Hills' encounter has since become one of the most celebrated in UFO history, and is still generating debate today.
The case is still "live" partly because of the role that hypnosis played in establishing what the couple believed happened to them that night. Many dedicated ufologists, as well as out-and-out skeptics, argue that hypnosis has since been misused in UFO research. . . . But the essential pattern of events described by the Hills has been repeated by hundreds of abductees since. (Brookesmith, p. 69)
Brooksmith then goes on to describe the abduction pattern:
The classic abduction scenario is reflected in the accounts of Betty and Barney Hill (abducted in New Hampshire, 1961), Betty Andreasson (Massachusetts, 1967), Calvin Parker and Charlie Hickson (Mississippi, 1973), David Stephens (Maine, 1975), Whitley Strieber (New York State, 1985), and others.

First comes the UFO sighting, sometimes involving electro-magnetic or other physical effects on the witnesses' home or vehicle. A key factor emerges after the UFO has departed: the events of what seem like a few minutes' duration turn out to have taken an hour or more. In the following days or weeks, bizarre UFO-related dreams, memory flashes or even physical symptoms afflict the witnesses. Of their own accord, or encouraged by others, they then undergo hypnosis to disinter their memories of events that transpired during the "missing time."

Typical accounts under hypnosis describe how the abductees have been led, sometimes floated, into a disk-like craft by aliens of various shapes and sizes. It is usually unclear exactly how the craft is entered. The interiors of alien craft are often reported to be brightly but diffusely lit, clinically clean, often with white or metallic appurtenances. The reason for this soon becomes clear, for the next stage in the standard abduction scenario is a medical examination of some kind — usually a painful one.

Typically, after these examinations, witnesses are allowed to dress and, before returning to where they came from, they are given a guided tour around the alien spacecraft. Some adbuctees try to remove some item of the craft's equipment as physical proof of their experience, but the aliens prevent them. Others however are given gifts by the aliens, and sometimes words of wisdom or a "message for mankind" as well. Finally, the abductee is "transferred" directly from the craft or "floated" back to where the aliens first took him or her captive; discriptions of this stage of the proceedings, like entering the craft, are usually very vague. After the abductee has been released, the UFO then leaves at high speed.

Controversy surrounds all these claims largely because of the investigators' dependence on regressive hypnosis. (Brookesmith, pp. 164-165)

Remembering Past Lives

If hypnosis can help people "remember" events a few years past, and help them "remember" events in childhood, it should not be surprising that it can help people remember past lives. If psychological problems can be caused by repressed memories of alien abductions, and repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse, could these problems not also be caused by repressed memories of things that happened in past lives? Indeed, some psychological therapists operate on this precise assumption. One promises "Stop Smoking, Lose Weight Reduce Stress, Habits, Migraine Headaches Phobias, Enhance Self Esteem." Others go even further and use not merely "past life regression" to help patients recall memories from past lives, but "future life progression" to help them see into the future!

Indeed, there is an entire cottage industry surrounding this kind of therapy.

The most famous example of "past life regression" — one that created a minor sensation in the 1950s — was that of Virginia Tighe. Under hypnosis, she recalled a "past life" as "Bridey Murphy," a 19th century Irish woman from Cork. She was capable, under hypnosis, of singing authentic Irish songs and telling authentic Irish stories. However, her "past life" accounts lost some of their luster when reporters from the Chicago American found that one Bridie Murphey Corkell had lived across the street from the house where Tighe grew up. Thus her "past life" memories were really from her childhood. As Martin Gardner put it:

Almost any hypnotic subject capable of going into a deep trance will babble about a previous incarnation if the hypnotist asks him to. He will babble just as freely about his future incarnations....In every case of this sort where there has been adequate checking on the subject's past, it has been found that the subject was weaving together long forgotten bits of information acquired during his early years. (Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1957), Chapter 26.
Yet "past life" accounts continue to attract attention. A more well-known recent case involved one Jenny Cockell, who under the influence of hypnosis came to remember a life as Mary Sutton, a woman who had died two decades before she was born.


As these examples make clear, testimony obtained under hypnosis will contain different elements. The truth may be one of these. But folklore and common cultural stereotypes (the image of alien spacecraft) may be another. Common human fears (eg. a painful medical procedure) may be still another. Ideas suggested subtly or not-so-subtly by the hypnotist may be yet another. Thus therapists who think that child sexual abuse is rampant and likely to underlie the psychological problems of adult women can lead clients to recover memories of abuse.

In the case of Perry Raymond Russo, he was repeatedly questioned about Ferrie and his talk of killing the President. He was repeatedly shown pictures of Clay Shaw and asked to identify them, and was then taken to confront Shaw in person at his home in the French Quarter. He discussed the case extensively with Garrison's assistant DAs. And when he finally underwent hypnosis he was asked leading questions by Dr. Esmond Fatter, who had himself been thoroughly briefed on the case the Garrison prosecution was trying to make.

Starting out as a pliant and suggestible witness, Russo's account "improved" radically under the influence of "truth serum" and hypnosis. It ended up being a darn good yarn.

You may wish to see:
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