Who Killed the Black Dahlia? Lie Detectors

In Los Angeles on Wednesday morning, Jan. 15, 1947, a female body was found in a vacant lot on Norton Avenue. The corpse was completely severed at the stomach. She was Elizabeth Short (age 22), known as the Black Dahlia. America’s coldest cold case has never been solved.* But the first suspect was cleared by a lie detector.

Robert “Red” Manley, a married man, had carried on an affair with Elizabeth in San Diego. At her request he drove her to the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles on Jan. 9, 1947, around 6:30 p.m. That’s when and where she was last seen alive in public.

Manley was soon apprehended as the prime suspect. Because he passed repeated polygraph tests he was set free.

Lie detector evidence has been used out of court but not in most courts. The famous Frye opinion, 293 F. 1013 (D.C. App. 1923), contains the exclusionary rule. See Mueller and Kirkpatrick, Evidence, at § 7.20. Tennessee also excludes evidence of lie detector results, either good or bad. See Marable v. State, 203 Tenn. 440, 313 S.W.2d 451 (1958), and Tennessee Law of Evidence § 7.02[26].

Polygraphs were once frequently a tool used by private employers, but legislation has imposed restrictions. Federal law is codified in the Employee Polygraph Protection Act, 29 U.S.C. §§2001 et seq. State law is codified in the Polygraph Examiners Act, Tenn. Code Ann. §§62-27-101 et seq. Both statutes forbid questions about subjects such as religious beliefs, political beliefs or sexual matters.

Tennessee prison employees caught with contraband can be required to take a polygraph examination. Tenn. Code Ann. §41-1-102(d)(3). But an amendment added in 2010 bars discipline or discharge “solely” for failing or refusing an exam.

Finally, what happened to Red Manley? He lost his job, lost his wife, and lost his life by suicide in an insane asylum.

*Donald H. Wolfe in The Black Dahlia Files (2005) may have the solution; he accuses Bugsy Siegel and three other mobsters plus an abortionist. Steve Hodel’s theory in Black Dahlia Avenger (2003) that his dad did it is silly fantasy.