On July 24 2013, Dorothy Varallo-Speckeen voluntarily allowed herself to be interviewed, believing that she was helping to solve a child abuse case. However, she was coerced into falsely admitting a crime she had not committed through improper interrogation techniques, which destroyed her reputation in years to come.
Unfortunately, her case is just one of many in the world. According to the Innocence Project, more than 360 wrongful convictions which were ultimately overturned by DNA evidence involved false confessions. A good portion of false confessions tend to be a result of improper interrogation techniques, showing the importance of having a set of best practices during interrogation. The purpose of a proper interrogation is not just to have criminals admit their involvements in crimes, but also to prevent wrongful charges on the innocent.
As such, interrogation is one of the most crucial and fundamental components of questioning a suspect. An interrogation usually occurs once reasonable grounds for belief against a suspect have been established.
Image taken from: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Good_cop/bad_cop
Recently, behavioural analysis interviews have been treated globally as an important tool during an interrogation. There is no doubt that confessions are the most powerful pieces of evidence in the court of law, though there might be times where they end up corrupting the quest for truth. This occurs when interrogators have pre-existing presumptions of a person’s guilt and are just looking for confirmation of any sort (e.g. in the case of Dorothy Varallo-Speckeen).
But what does interrogation rely on? For the most part, some valuable and irreplaceable information still comes from face-to-face conversations across a table with interrogators relying on nothing more than intuition, experience, and a grab bag of passed-down methods. John E. Reid & Associates is one of the biggest interrogation trainers in the world, teaching thousands of police officers, intelligence operatives and private investigators every year. Their techniques are mostly based on the experience of the company’s founders, interviews with suspects after interrogations, and what would appear to be common sense. Yet, there are drawbacks in this well-known and widely-practised technique (known as the Reid Technique).
While movies and TV shows often depict coercive techniques (such as the Reid Technique), the “good cop, bad cop” technique, or even intimidation/force being used in interrogation, such tactics can often increase the likelihood of false confessions. A study by Russano found that while inclusions of maximialisation (confronting with incriminating evidence) and/or minimalisation (down-playing the significance of the crime and allowing excuses for it) can increase the rates of true confessions, it can also increase the likelihoods of false confessions to even greater extents.
The Reid Technique, which has been described as the gold standard of interrogation in the US, was first introduced in 1974 to replace tactics involving threats, beatings, and torture. It has seen been criticised for the high percentages of false confessions it has produced, as well as its various flaws. This includes misclassification of a suspect’s truthfulness/deception during the behavioural analysis interview which occurs early on and requires snap judgements in a time of high pressure, coercive methods including psychological manipulation (e.g. implying guilt without evidence multiple times during the interview, deflecting denials or corrections by talking over the suspect, etc), and contamination of confessions with evidence that has not been released to the public. Further, the legalisation of the Reid Technique by the US Supreme Court in the case of Frazier v Cupp further complicates the situation by allowing the presentation of false evidence.
Third degree techniques (such as intimidation and torture) can contribute to fundamental attribution errors by resulting in even more stress, which can corrode endurance and ultimately affect memory and self-certainty. Between 2002 and 2009, with the authorization of officials in the Bush Administration’s White House and the Department of Justice, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and various components of the US Armed Forces launched a plan named ‘Enhanced Interrogation techniques’ or the ‘Enhanced Interrogation’ program. There was a long and detailed finding that waterboarding, extreme sleep deprivation, rectal feeding, wall-slamming and other techniques were not only harmful, but also counterproductive. These techniques constitute torture, cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment – both illegal under US and international law. It is also clear that improper interrogation can result in the serious consequence of not being able to admit the confession obtained during the interrogation process as a piece of evidence.
As such, it is important to know what techniques are useful and not useful in interrogation.
One such method is to allow the suspect/interviewee to be comfortable enough to share information, and build rapport with them. To illustrate this, researchers Laurence Alison and Emily Alison found that the interrogators that played the role of therapists were most likely to have the interviewees volunteer useful information. It should also be noted that people tend to obey perceived authority figures even if it goes against their morals, as seen from the Stanley Milgram studies, which is why making people more comfortable would be better than intimidating them. Environment also plays an important role in this aspect, with themes of openness and warmth making suspects/witnesses more comfortable and willing to open up.
Image taken from: https://www.artekcam.com/eng/products/mirrors/interrogation-room-mirror/
A study by Russano et al (2015) found that by being sympathetic and flattering – such as by saying things like “I am sure you are a good person, and no one wants to be accused of cheating or breaking the rules”- but without playing down the seriousness of the offense or its potential punishment (contrary to minimization) could produce more true confessions that way with far fewer false ones.
Another tactic would be to ask fewer questions. Fisher and Geiselman (1988) found that the more questions asked in an interview, the less likely a witness was to volunteer information, since he will just be waiting for the next question. Therefore, asking fewer questions would allow the interviewer to obtain more details while allowing suspects/witnesses to be more cooperative when confronted with inconsistencies between their statements and the evidence.
These tactics can all be converged in a Cognitive Interview that emphasizes open-ended questions. Here, witnesses are told to report everything they remember regardless of whether they think it is significant, and possibly give a sketch of the crime scene. Interviewers then prompt them by asking them to retell a sequence of events starting at different points or in reverse order or from different vantage points (e.g. from where they were at that moment). This results in a cognitive challenge for a liar but a sharpened recall for someone recounting actual experiences by shifting the context in a way that throws previously unnoticed details into relief. Case on point: a study by Fisher in 2013 showed that Federal Law Enforcement trainees were able to get 80 percent more relevant, accurate information using the Cognitive Interview than the traditional method they taught their students.
Other interview techniques also include the Preparation and Planning, Engage and Explain, Account, Closure and Evaluate (PEACE) technique and Kinesic Interview. The PEACE technique is used in England and is less confrontational than the Reid Technique.It encourages the building of rapport, active listening, and allows the interviewee to make clarifications after the interviewer has summarized the case. Meanwhile, the Kinesic Interview method involves analyzing a person’s behaviour to assess deception. The method consists of over 30 practical kinesic principles, of which the “first and most important” principle is that “No single kinesic behaviour, verbal or nonverbal, proves a person is truthful or deceptive”. The other principles include both general statements of human behaviour (since it is easier to control verbal than nonverbal kinesic signals) and statements specifically focused on interview or interrogation techniques (e.g to attack a denial, the investigator should review the real or circumstantial evidence with the subject every 3 to 5 minutes). These older techniques can also be used for interrogation.
In conclusion, many techniques for interrogation exist, with different techniques being used in different countries. While most of those used today have their place in interrogation, it is important to keep up with research on how to most accurately gain truthful confessions which are admissible to court.
*The views and opinions expressed in this article do not constitute legal advice and solely belong to the author and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of the NUS Criminal Justice Club or its affiliates.
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Celine Cheow is a recent graduate from NUS Pharmacy. Besides toxicology, she is also interested in forensic psychology and psychiatry as well.
Kexu is currently doing his Master of Science in Forensic Science in NUS, he holds bachelor of law and bachelor of science in Food science & engineering. Before starting his master program, he worked in a leading law firm focusing on M&A, IPO and insolvency.