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September 12, 2020

he witness remembered the Volkswagen Beetle, its psychedelic flames visible in the twilight, and the white man with long hair who parked the garish thing on her quiet street that January morning in 1998.

But, when Farmers Branch police showed her a lineup, she couldn’t pick out the passenger.

She wanted to remember what he looked like to help catch her neighbor’s killers, the men who slithered under the garage door, shot the 64-year-old grandmother dead and ransacked her home. So a local policeman did something he’d never done before and would never do again.

The officer hypnotized her.

In April, The Dallas Morning News published the results of a yearlong investigation into how police in Texas use hypnosis in an effort to solve crimes. Through thousands of pages of documents and never-before-seen videos, The News revealed how officers tell victims and witnesses that hypnosis can refresh their memories and help them put criminals behind bars. Law enforcement has turned to this controversial, and some say dangerous, practice to investigate thousands of crimes in Texas, send dozens of men to prison — and some to their deaths.

Charles Don Flores is one of those men.

In 2000, the white man who parked the VW Beetle outside Elizabeth “Betty” Black’s home pleaded guilty to killing her. He was sentenced to 35 years in prison and released in 2016 — just months before Flores’ first execution date. But Flores, who has maintained his innocence, got the death penalty. The witness who saw the two men through her window that morning was hypnotized.

More than a year later, only after seeing him in the courtroom during his trial, did this witness say she was confident Flores was the passenger.

Now, after two decades of attempts to overturn his conviction, Flores is trying one last time to clear his name. His case will soon be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which will determine whether Flores walks free or is given a lethal injection.

The court’s decision could also shape the future of police hypnosis across the country, and especially in Texas, where law enforcement officers continue to use hypnosis to investigate dozens of crimes a year. Flores’ attorney, Gretchen Sween, said it is time for that to stop.

“It’s junk science,” she told The News in August. “The practice really needs to be relegated to the waste bin.”

Should law enforcement be able to use hypnosis to investigate crimes? And should prosecutors be able to lean on what a witness or victim says during a hypnosis session to convict a defendant and send them to prison?

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