Lost for decades, a report recently has been found detailing the results of polygraph exams given to 18 Charlestonians in the weeks following the still-unsolved 1953 slaying of Charleston Daily Mail owner Juliet Staunton Clark.
The report surfaced following the October publication of “Murder on Staunton Road” by Charleston authors Charlie Ryan and Mitch Evans, a deep-dive revisitation of the city’s highest-profile homicide.
According to the authors, the polygraph report makes it apparent who investigators believed was responsible for the crime while clearing others whose words and actions had once raised suspicions.
Ryan and Evans were given the report on condition of anonymity by a Charleston resident who came into its possession sometime after 1960.
The polygraph, or lie detector, exams were ordered by Charleston Mayor John T. Copenhaver, whose hands-on approach to city government included assuming leadership of the Clark murder investigation. In that role, the mayor personally called Fred Inbau, one of the nation’s premier polygraph experts, and asked him to come to Charleston and put his skills to use in the high-profile murder probe.
Inbau, the former director of Northwestern University’s Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory — the nation’s first crime lab — had authored or co-written several textbooks on both polygraph techniques and effective non-polygraph interrogation methods. He was also one of the most highly regarded polygraph operators in the country. At the time he was contacted by Copenhaver, Inbau was head of the criminal law department at Northwestern’s law school, of which he was an alumnus.
Inbau arrived in Charleston on Sept. 3, 1953, two weeks after the killing. He spent most of the following week in an office in Charleston City Hall, giving lie detector exams to family members, neighbors, household workers and others known to have associated with the victim in the hours preceding her Aug. 21, 1953, bludgeoning.
According to “Murder on Staunton Road,” Inbau’s polygraph results were shared only with Copenhaver, who left city police in the dark about what the examinations indicated, an apparent effort to prevent leaks that could damage the reputations of innocent participants. Meanwhile, police conducted interrogations independent of Inbau’s with Copenhaver frequently participating, if not leading.
Inbau’s formal report on the lie detector exams was mailed to Copenhaver in late 1953. Despite a public assertion by the mayor that he and top investigators knew the killer’s identity but lacked the evidence needed to prosecute, he never presented the results of Inbau’s work to police or prosecutors. While polygraph results may not be used as evidence in court, they can be useful in focusing the direction of an investigation or in the discovery of new evidence.
The report was found in the bottom drawer of the mayor’s desk shortly after his unexpected death in August 1959.
According “Murder on Staunton Road,” Arch Alexander Jr., Clark’s son-in-law, was questioned by police for 14 hours in the days following the killing. He steadfastly denied involvement in the death. Two weeks later, he voluntarily submitted to a series of polygraph exams by Inbau.
According to the newly found records, Alexander was examined on Sept. 4, 7 and 10, 1953, producing responses “indicating that this subject is not telling the truth when he denies being involved in the killing of his mother-in-law, Mrs. Clark,” Inbau concluded.
In addition to a polygraph exam, Alexander was given “peak of tension” tests, which measure elevated physical responses to times or locations suggested by the examiner. In this case, Inbau wrote in the report, he administered the test to Alexander in an effort to “ascertain the time of the killing and the location of the weapon or instrument used to kill Mrs. Clark.”
Inbau said Alexander produced “significant responses when 10 o’clock was mentioned” and when a map indicating the site of a horse stable owned by Alexander was shown.
While more traditional forensic testing indicated Clark was killed sometime between 9 and 11 p.m., searchers turned up no clues in the stables area.
Inbau wrote that when Alexander was told his polygraph exam indicated he was not telling the truth regarding the crime, “he persisted in his denial of any involvement.”
Inbau qualified his interpretation of Alexander’s polygraph responses by stating “it is remotely possible” that the lengthy interrogation of Alexander by police a short time prior to the lie detector exam could have produced inaccurate results.
Another Clark relative who drew scrutiny early in the investigation when he went on vacation soon after the murder and reportedly declined to be polygraphed was Lyell B. Clay, the newspaper owner’s son, who 15 years later would become Daily Mail publisher.
The newly found report indicates that Clay, then Charleston’s city solicitor, was among those polygraphed by Inbau in the weeks following the slaying. Clay’s exam, like those for most of the other Charlestonians tested by Inbau, indicated “innocence of any involvement in the Clark murder,” Inbau wrote.
“This is the first document we’ve come across to definitively shows that Lyell Clay had not only been polygraphed but determined to be innocent of any involvement in the Clark murder,” Ryan said. “It’s gratifying to us that our research was the catalyst to setting the record straight for those who may have suspected otherwise.”
Alexander’s wife and Clark’s daughter Julie, who lost one of her newborn twins days before her mother’s death, was “emotionally unstable to such a degree that it was not possible to obtain a satisfactory recording for diagnosis,” Inbau wrote.
Julie and Arch Alexander Jr. divorced in 1954, not long after their toddler son, Jay, died from complications of burns suffered when a turpentine-soaked paintbrush he was playing with ignited after coming in contact with a water heater. Alexander practiced law in Marmet for 23 years and died in 1977 at the age of 52. Julie spent most of the remainder of her life in France, returning in 1983 to Charleston, where she died two years later.
In addition to the missing polygraph records, a copy of a letter sent to Inbau on Dec. 9, 1960, by then-Charleston Police Chief Dallas Bias was provided to Ryan and Evans by the anonymous donor.
Bias wrote that while he had been police chief for more than four years and Copenhaver had been dead for more than one year, he had only recently been able to read Inbau’s records from the Clark case, provided to him by former Police Chief Dewey Williams.
Williams asked Inbau if, “in the interests of furthering the investigation of the Clark murder case,” it would be worthwhile to polygraph Anderson again.
The documents provided to the authors include no response to that question.
Evans and Ryan say they don’t know how Inbau’s report moved from Bias’ possession to their anonymous source.
Meanwhile, the Charleston police file on the murder investigation remains missing. “It’s possible that it’s still intact and out there,” Ryan said. “If someone has it and would share it anonymously, we would be happy to hear from them.”
“Murder on Staunton Road” sold out within three weeks of its October 2020 release. A second printing is scheduled for release Thursday. Advance orders can be placed at the book’s website, murderonstaunton.com.