Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture Copyright © 1994 Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture
All rights reserved.
ISSN 1070-8286

Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 2(4) (1994) 93-95

The Deadly Deception

Produced by: Nova, WGBH Educational Foundation
Release Information: Films for the Humanities and Sciences, (1993) VHS 60 min.

The video, The Deadly Deception, is a well-produced documentary on unethical behavior in government sponsored scientific research. The piece chronicles the forty year study of untreated syphilis in approximately 400 African-American men from Macon County, Alabama which began in 1932. The utilization of interviews with two survivors of the experiment, Herman Shaw and Charles Pollard, and experts in the fields of research, medicine, and civil rights, along with original film taken during the experiment, results in a believable and startling portrayal of the misuse of human subjects in scientific research.

The documentary creatively infuses a play about the now infamous experiment entitled "Miss Evers' Boys" which helps the viewer to understand the lengths to which the United States Public Health Service (USPHS) went to keep the "experiment" in place and the deceit used against the men to retain their participation. In the play, Miss Evers is intended to represent one Eunice Rivers; Rivers was the nurse who served as a liaison between the men and the public health service and was a key player in encouraging their continued participation. In addition to Nurse Rivers, the USPHS used social institutions that the men trusted, such as churches and schools, to keep them involved in the study.

The material presented in the video is well documented. Testimony of survivors, experts in the medical field, and civil rights leaders provides a variety of perspectives (e.g., medical, legal, criminal justice) from which one can judge the experiment on the men of Tuskegee, Alabama which was titled "The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male." The video provides a chronological account of the government program that was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Public Health and was initially dedicated to the eradication of syphilis. The program, begun in the late twenties, changed its focus due to economics and ultimately was transformed from a treatment program to one where the participants turned from being patients to subjects. When the USPHS discovered that 35 percent of the Macon County men were infected with Syphilis, this allegedly overwhelmed the service in terms of holding to the original program goal. Then director of the USPHS, Talford Clark, saw an [End page 93] opportunity to study untreated Syphilis in African-American men within a "natural" experimental laboratory, Macon County, which also involved the Tuskegee Institute.

Over the years, the program continued to be a scientific experiment using the poor black males of Macon County to determine the long term effects of syphilis. The subjects believed they were receiving medical treatment, yet they were actually getting placebos. In 1972 the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) finally publicly exposed the study and it ended, with the subjects each receiving a minimal financial settlement. Interestingly, while the public was not aware of the alleged research malfeasance committed in Macon County, the scientific community, especially some of those studying venereal disease and social epidemiology, were quite aware of the true nature of the study as the findings had been shared in mainstream medical journals over the years. Therefore, the experiment, its procedures, and findings were well known and institutionalized within the medical community.

This video could be effectively integrated into any research methods course for the purpose of illustrating ethics in science. In particular, the piece deals directly with important concepts such as informed consent, deception, coercion, physical harm to subjects, and psychological harm. The video can also be used in a course on ethics, applied research methods, or may even be used in section of a course dealing with ethics which may be offered within criminal justice/criminology programs and departments. Moreover, the video could also be used to promote discussion of civil rights abuses, inequality of medical treatment, and government fraud.

There are several key ways in which the video The Deadly Deception could be effectively integrated into a criminal justice methods course. First, the instructor could begin by posing a question in reference to the video. Why is it that the social status of subjects may sometimes create the perception that ethics are somehow elastic? A contemporary connection which can be made to this study is the recent revelation that the U.S. Government also sponsored radiation research on unsuspecting institutionalized mentally retarded individuals during the 1950's and 1960's. Second, the events of Tuskegee may be used as a stimulus for a discussion of civil rights violations, which are directly germane to criminal justice. Third, the piece illustrates the trust that society and its citizens place in symbols of authority. Given that many criminal justice students will likely become symbols of authority (i.e., police officers, probation officers, correctional officers, etc.), this piece may not only [End page 94] provide a good springboard for a lesson in the role of authority in research but also in traditional criminal justice careers. Fourth, and finally, instructors of methods, ethics or white-collar crime courses may use this video in conjunction with the chapter titled "Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment" by James H. Jones found in Corporate and Governmental Deviance (Third Edition) edited by M. David Ermann and Richard J. Lundman as a basis for a discussion of elite deviance and criminality.

Taken together, the video is a well crafted piece which gives the viewer a shocking account of a now infamous case. It is illustrative and well documented. It is thought provoking and applicable to criminal justice.

Dr. Bryan Byers teaches criminal justice and research
methods at Valparaiso University. He is the author of
numerous articles and has published three books.

Dr. Peggy Y. Byers teaches communications and research
methods at Saint Mary's College-Notre Dame. She is the
author of numerous articles and is currently completing a
book. [End page 95]