When questioned about a crime, it is a pretty good assumption that the criminally-inclined will always lie: “I didn’t do it”. The irony is that good guys — people who are actually innocent — will tell investigators the exactly the same story – “I didn’t do it”.
How do you tell which one is telling the truth? And, if you apply pressure techniques, how do you keep the innocent ones from breaking down and implicating themselves by a false admission?
In court, a confession is the most trusted evidence a prosecutor can present. In some cases, a confession will explain away inconsistencies in evidence, contradictory witness testimony, and later recanted versions of the confession. If he said it, he must have done it. A satisfied police interrogator will congratulate himself for solving the case, when in fact, he may have ruined an innocent man’s life, allowed a real criminal to continue committing crimes, and cost the government a lot of money for a wrong prosecution. Later, when the truth finally comes out, the repercussions spread farther, perhaps even crashing a good cop’s career.
Are interrogations successful? You bet. When investigators began bringing in suspects for the Lindbergh kidnapping, they got over 200 confessions.
1. We’ll beat the truth out of you: the traditional method.
Historically, confessions were a simple matter of applying the so-called third degree. Depriving the subject of food, water and sleep, applying physical discomfort, beating him with a rubber hose so as not to leave marks and even threats or intimidation eventually broke a subject or caused him to accept whatever story he was being fed — simply to stop the abuse. The intimidation would also continue a bit longer, however, in order to get the subject to sign a paper saying he had not been coerced and his statement was voluntary. With the paper in hand and a blindfold over the statue of Lady Justice’s eyes, the admission would seal the suspect’s fate.
It was not until 1937, when the court threw out a seemingly voluntary confession — obtained by officers who had strung a suspect up in a tree and repeatedly whipped him to get him to agree to perjure himself — that harsh techniques were gradually abolished.
2. We can tell yer lyin’ by the way ya blink yer eyes: the Reid technique.
The most popular modern technique for interrogation — the one that has been taught in most police academies since the 70s — is the Reid Technique, named after the Chicago policeman who developed it in the 40s. It relies on a careful building of rapport, tests for reliability on known answers to control questions, and observation of body language to identify anxiety, which, according to Reid, is a signal for lying.
Unfortunately, according to Douglas Starr, who published and did extensive research on the method, the Reid technique relies on outdated and discredited science and unqualified psychology. 40 years of extensive psychological research has debunked the idea that anxiety connotes lying. Anxiety is a normal reaction to being in a high stress situation. Conversely, there are many liars who can look you in the eye and tell you with conviction anything they want you to believe.
A good account of the Reid process is described by S. J. Parris; “they twisted every answer I gave until it sounded like the opposite meaning, and I became so confused and afraid I found myself agreeing to statements that I knew were not true.”
3. Hey buddy, you can trust me: good cop, bad cop.
Even small children have heard of the good cop, bad cop routine, when their parents team up — one nurturing, one angry and threatening — to find out who ate the cookies (after they have already found crumbs on her tiny mattress). In a high pressure situation, many people will open up to someone offering compassion, and even go along with suggestions to ensure that the presumably nice person will continue to protect her.
4. Lies are like a house of cards: the PEACE method.
A new interviewing technique is gaining acceptance as an effective way to discover the truth without creating false witnesses. The PEACE (Preparation and Planning, Engage and Explain, Account, Closure and Evaluate) method is being applied in the UK, Denmark, New Zealand and a few other places. It resembles a journalistic approach, and is very straightforward. It assumes that a liar will gradually build up a series of false explanations, and the more the subject lies, the more he has to juggle in his mind. Eventually, an inconsistent detail will break down the whole fabrication.
As Laurie Halse Anderson says in her crime novel The Impossible Knife of Memory: “The trick to surviving an interrogation is patience. Don’t offer up anything. Don’t explain. Answer the question and only the question that is asked so you don’t accidentally put your head in a noose.”
On the other hand: the suspect’s viewpoint.
The suspect, whether innocent or not, must realize that they are playing a game of perception. They don’t want to appear to have anything to hide, and want to be seen as cooperative, so they are already open to transgressions against their rights. They may waive their Miranda rights in the United States (to stay silent unless their attorney is present) because they will be told by authorities that they don’t need that protection if they have nothing to hide. Innocent people bite on that lie almost every time. They may have faith in the justice system and — if actually innocent — they figure the truth will come out and justice will prevail.
Yet sometimes the facts may be so obtuse and convoluted, or the alibi (“I was watching TV alone at home, nobody was with me”) will not be enough to save them. Justice will not prevail because nobody is willing to look farther for the truth once they have an admission.
Your Turn: Do you know of any other interrogation techniques that we haven’t mentioned here? Have anything else to say about the ones we’ve already covered? We’d love to hear from you. Leave us a comment.