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The lie detector

The jail jumpsuit hangs off the boy's shoulders, the baggy sleeves are bunched around his wrists.

The judge says, "Raise your right hand."

The boy looks at his hands. The right one is shackled to the left, both are chained to his waist. He can't lift them. He looks up, perplexed. He is 12.

"Do the best you can."

He raises five fingers, promises to tell the truth, the whole truth.

You want to believe him. He's baby-cheeked and he's scared.

The judge, after all these years, still thinks these kids are adorable. But that doesn't make them honest.

Lies and the lying liars who tell them

All day long, they raise their little hands and swear to tell the truth and nothing but, and then they lie, lie, lie. Tiny white lies and big, life-hanging-in-the-balance lies. Hundreds of lies, five days a week.

Manatee County juvenile court has no jury, so all the lies are aimed at one man.

Judge Scott Brownell is fascinated, amused.

"Everybody lies," he says, "It's like a shooting gallery in here."

Brownell studies lies. He teaches judges from all over the state to catch liars. He also teaches them that understanding the lies and the liars can help them cope with the relentless insult of being lied to day after day.

His class is one of the most popular in the state's college of advanced judicial studies, said dean Jennifer Bailey, a Miami-Dade Circuit judge. He teaches that lying is a symptom and that a kid's lies can help a judge figure out what he really needs.

"He is probably the judge expert in Florida on lying," she said. "You don't want to be in his court if your goal is to get away with something. On the other hand, you stand a much better chance of getting the help you need."

He taught her that domestic violence victims speak passively, mumble and stammer. It can sound like lying, but it can be a clue to something much worse. "It changed how I listened to testimony," she said.

Lawyers and probation officers warn kids that Brownell is not the judge to fool with. If you lie to him, they say, he will know.

Of course, that's not exactly true.

He's better than average, but not by much. But he knows that a kid who thinks he'll get caught will slip up. It's part of his strategy.

He loves being the final arbiter of truth and falsehood, right and wrong. He has been a judge for 16 years and likes juvenile court best. In adult court the decisions are often narrow and irrelevant and in civil court juries and statutes make the decisions. Here his control is nearly absolute.

He decides who gets treatment and who goes to jail. But first he has to get past the lies and into their heads.

"You can do a huge amount of good," he says, "by paying attention."

So he studies their faces, searching for little flashes of purity behind the masks they put on. He tries to see what forces _ drugs, trauma, neglect _ have wrecked their brains. Some are absolutely incapable of speaking the truth. Some don't know they are lying. Some don't even know what is real.

"How do you plead?"

The boy looks uncertain.

"I did swing at my mom," he says, "but I didn't hit her."

Brownell doesn't have to decide yet if he's telling the truth. But he can already see how he's picking at his shirt sleeves, fidgeting, looking down. Doesn't mean he's lying, just means he's scared.

"I'll put you down for a "not guilty,' " Brownell says.

It's rare to find a kid who will tell the truth when it really hurts. Most of them, the judge says, are just doing the best they can.

It's not just the kids

In Courtroom J, where lies are invented, recited and recanted, Judge Brownell put the witness stand on casters and turned it, so the liars have to look him in the face.

There is no look that gives away a lie, but sometimes he will see, just for an instant, an emotion that doesn't fit.

Asked a question he didn't plan for, a kid will show, for a split second, the kind of fear that can't be faked.

Sometimes they shrug while they answer, disowning their response. Sometimes they are calm when they should worry they won't be believed. Sometimes, they are so pleased with their story, they can't help but smirk.

"Duper's delight," he calls it.

It's all based on someone else's research. Brownell keeps the book Telling Lies in his chambers, with passages underlined. No facial expression is grounds for conviction. They tell him when to ask another question, and another.

Knowing when someone is not lying is as important as knowing when they are, so he teaches other judges not to believe myths about lies. If a kid looks up at the ceiling, he's conjuring an image, but not necessarily a lie. A fidgety kid could be off his medication.

And it's not just the kids who lie.

"Oh my god," he says, "the parents."

Family loyalty is more powerful than an abstract rule. It's the reason moms lie for their kids and why gang members won't rat each other out.

One mom swore her son was not out past curfew, then broke down when witnesses said otherwise.

Brownell got angry and asked the mother, "Why did you lie?"

She started to cry, and said she couldn't help it.

Computer? What computer?

Thursday is trial day, and Randy Elwood has rehearsed for it.

He is 17, sure of himself, loaded with indignation. But he's never testified in court before and, being no fool, he has planned what he will say.

His teacher in Bradenton takes the stand first, calmly describing how Randy and his friend got tossed out of class, refused to leave campus, and ended up handcuffed for trespassing.

Judge Brownell pretends not to notice how the co-defendants smirk, shake their heads, roll their eyes. But he has already scanned their faces. Both of them have wrinkled foreheads, like they are worried. It's probably just their usual look. That's going to make it hard to tell when they really get flustered on the stand.

The arresting officer describes how the boys ran from his marked golf cart, with its flashing lights and sheriff's star, and then Randy gets his chance.

His answers are insistent. Yes, sir, the teacher was mad. No sir, he would not let us call home for a ride. He didn't say we had to leave campus.

"Why were you running and hiding?" the prosecutor asks him. "You knew you did something wrong."

Randy takes his eyes off the lawyer, looks around the room. Judge Brownell scribbles "Hesitates" on his note pad. Doesn't mean he's lying, but he seems uncomfortable.

"I ran because, I just ran," Randy says. "We did not try to avoid him. It didn't matter if he caught up to us."

The prosecutor drops it.

Brownell would have loved to hammer that kid, over and over, trying to make him crack. But the case is dismissed on a technicality, and Randy walks out feeling vindicated.

Next case.

A group of kids broke into a house, piled up a computer and a bunch of stuff on the living room floor, but then cops arrived and drew guns.

The kid they found hiding in the attic is now on the witness stand.

His shoulders are relaxed. He is calm.

Too calm for a kid facing so much evidence, Brownell thinks.

He says he didn't know his friends were planning to break into the house. He didn't see them pry open the door. He thought they were there to visit a friend.

He saw the computer on the floor, but didn't think anything of it.

"I was in the house a matter of seconds," he says. "I didn't touch anything in the house."

Brownell isn't sure about that. Other witnesses place him in the house much longer. Now is the time to press the kid. You touched the stuff, didn't you? Didn't you? But he keeps quiet. Lets the lawyers finish.

Some lies don't require heavy analysis.

Brownell looks at the kid and thinks, You're in the house. The stuff is on the floor. You're hiding in the attic. Come on.

"Guilty," he says.

Coming clean

He's sure he fielded a hundred lies today, most of them subtle and unimportant, most of them wrapped in scraps of reality. The kids who took the stand were typical. Not gifted liars, but also not bad enough to have him chuckling with the bailiff after court.

In between lies he sentenced a 16-year-old sex offender for "as long as it takes," got a squinting kid an eye exam and put out a warrant for a girl whose mother wouldn't bring her to court.

A dark-eyed boy named Julio, fingering his handcuffs and staring at the floor, pleaded guilty to carrying a knife to school in his backpack.

His foster parents were watching, propping him up with their approval. The kid has had trouble with lying before. The judge didn't miss his chance.

"Pleading guilty," he said, "expressing honesty and truthfulness, it's a way of owning up to what you did."

Julio lifted his gaze off the floor, looked the judge in the eye.

It doesn't happen as often as he'd like, but it does happen, even here.

Some kids tell the truth.