How to Get a False Confession in Ten Easy Steps

This article by the author of "Effective Interviewing and Interrogation Techniques" is a nice short primer on the kinds of interrogations techniques that are seen time and time again in false confession cases. It's another way of packaging the Reid technique. Notice that there is not even the hint of the possibility of false confessions and the complete confidence of the interrogator in his ability to read the "buy signs" of his suspect—the body language and other  physical reactions that suggest the suspect's guilt and that he is ready to confess.

Security Management
Tuesday, October 1, 2002

ISSN: 0145-9406; Volume 46; Issue 10

Confessions of an interrogator: Ten principles that guide a successful
interrogation-by making it easier for a suspect to confess. (Investigations).
Nathan J. Gordon

  The district manager of the fast-food restaurant noticed that for
several days in a row, money was missing from the restaurant's daily
bank deposits. He called in the security manager to interview the
employees who had access to the deposits and to look at other evidence.

  It didn't take long for security to identify the primary suspect, a
young man whom we'll call Michael. Given that all the evidence pointed
strongly to Michael, he was called in and interrogated. The objective
was to get Michael to confess. The company's security director was able
to obtain the confession. Michael was terminated, resolving the issue and saving the company the expense of further pursuing the case in court.

  How can a security manager improve the chance of getting a confession when an investigation points strongly to one suspect within the company?

The following 10 tactics are generally used by experienced interrogators to obtain a confession:
  • Begin with a firm statement that the suspect is guilty.
  • Do not allow the suspect to deny his involvement.
  • Offer a sympathetic series of possibilities of how and why the crime took place.
  • Keep the suspect on the defensive by undermining his self-confidence.
  • Give some persuasive arguments for telling the truth.
  • Alleviate the fear of confessing.
  • Use compliments to build rapport.
  • Watch for "buy" signs that show the suspect is ready to confess.
  • Move in and get the confession.
  Using the example of the fast-food restaurant (which is based on the
author's experience), the following interrogation scenario illustrates
how these tactics can be applied.

  Getting started. The security manager, whom we'll call Williams, invites the suspect, Michael, into his office. They are face to face with no physical barrier between them. Williams first tells Michael that his participation in the inquiry is voluntary and that he is free to leave at any time. This step is taken to avoid charges of unlawful detention later.

  Williams then asks Michael to sign a consent form stating that he understands he is voluntarily being questioned and is free to leave. At the end of the interrogation, Michael will be asked to sign another consent form confirming that he was treated fairly, that he was not coerced, and that he stayed of his own free will.

  Williams also explains that this is not a police investigation, but
rather one conducted by a private security officer hired by the company.  (Consequently, there is no need for the suspect to be notified of his Miranda rights. If the security officer were also a police officer, even off-duty, or if the security officer were acting on behalf of law enforcement, the Miranda warning might be necessary.) While the company retains the option of bringing the matter to law enforcement, Williams does not mention this, as he wants the suspect's desire to confess to outweigh his fear of punishment.

  Statement of guilt. The interrogator begins the interrogation by making clear his conviction that, based on all available evidence, the suspect is guilty; if he fails to communicate this belief there is no reason for the suspect to confess. At this time, the interrogator may choose to reveal only some of the evidence, saving other details for later to undermine the suspect's confidence, or withholding certain information that only the perpetrator would know, as a way to verify the veracity of a confession (and as further evidence that the confession was not coerced). After this statement, the interrogator should briefly pause, then rephrase and repeat the statement with a "hook" (a leading question that allows the suspect to confess without using words). Some suspects will nod their heads at this point, effectively ending the interrogation. Other suspects, however, will begin to deny their involvement in the crime.

  In this case, Williams begins with a firm statement expressing his belief that Michael committed the crime, and adds a hook, hoping that the suspect will confess immediately: "Michael, our investigation is now completed, and based on the evidence, there is no question in my mind that you were involved."

  Williams pauses, then continues: "You took those missing deposits, didn't you?" Michael shifts uncomfortably in his chair but shakes his head in disagreement. He has been given the chance to confess but has declined.

  No denials. The more that Michael denies his misdeed, the more difficult obtaining a confession becomes, because each denial reinforces and deepens his lies. Once he has denied his involvement, he must admit not only his wrongdoing but also that he lied every time he denied it. Thus, Williams will use the tactic of refusing to listen to Michael's denials throughout the interrogation.

  When Michael shakes his head and begins to deny his involvement in
stealing the deposits, Williams stops him by holding his hands up like a traffic cop. He then interrupts Michael, saying, "You took those deposits, Michael." Michael again shakes his head, and Williams insists. "Yes, you did."

  Possibilities. Michael lowers his head submissively. Now Williams moves closer and offers Michael a series of possibilities of how and why this crime may have happened. Williams tries to make it easier for Michael to admit his involvement by presenting sympathetic scenarios. He keeps a close watch for the suspect to show an interest in a particular scenario, The acceptable scenario for Michael may be one that allows him to minimize in his own mind the blame for committing the crime.

  For example, Williams says, "I've seen cases like this before. What it looks like to me is that you're not a thief. You're not the type of person who said to himself, 'I don't like the company, so I'm going to rip them off!' That's not what happened here. I think you got into a financial bind and started borrowing money from the deposit. Then, you needed to borrow money from the next day's deposit to cover for what you took, and it continued to escalate. You probably planned to pay everything back, but the whole thing just snowballed on you."

  Here the interrogator has offered a measure of sympathy for the suspect and has offered a respectable way for him to begin a confession. But in this case, Michael again begins to shake his head in disagreement.

  Williams again refuses to accept a denial: "Something definitely happened here, Michael, and you were definitely involved. It's just a question of why," he says. Later Williams will offer other possible scenarios that shift the blame to the fast-food restaurant.

  Undermining confidence. A person who has committed a crime invariably fears that incriminating evidence may have been left behind or may eventually turn up. The interrogator can play on that fear--that guilty conscience.

  In this case, Williams says, "If you're not going to talk to me, Michael, and tell me what happened, there's no way I can help you. And what's going to happen when they check with your landlord and find out that you were three months late in your rent and that you suddenly paid the back rent in cash? What's going to happen if someone saw you putting some money in your pocket? Where are you going to be then?" Williams knows that although these statements are bluffs, they can't be called; Michael does not know the extent of the evidence that exists or how much Williams knows. If Williams hits on the right scenario, or even gets close, Michael's confidence will be completely undermined, opening the door for a confession. Michael doesn't say anything yet, but Williams notes that he squirms uncomfortably in his chair.

  Fear versus desire. Most people who commit a crime experience guilt.
There are only two ways to relieve it: confession or punishment. However, these conflict with each other. Almost every suspect will have a desire to confess, but fear of punishment inhibits it. Williams tries to enhance Michael's desire to confess, while reducing his fear of punishment.

  He does this by reminding Michael that if he confesses to the crime, he will likely be treated differently than if he defiantly continues to deny it despite the evidence against him. "There are different ways to handle situations like this," he tells Michael.

  "Imagine that you have two employees who each steal $20,000 from a company, and both go before the judge," says Williams. "One tells the judge that he took the money for medical bills but he knows it's wrong and he's sorry. The other looks the judge in the eyes and insists he didn't do anything. Both are found guilty. But the first guy gets a slap on the wrist, and if he stays out of trouble for a year, he has his record expunged. The other guy goes to jail. Why? They both committed the same crime, but we don't judge a person by their mistake. We all make mistakes. We judge a person by how they handle adversity when it's upon them. Do they own up to their mistakes?"

  Michael is listening closely and begins to nod his head, perhaps without even realizing it. Williams notices this as a "buy" sign (discussed later). The suspect is beginning to understand the benefit of confessing.

  Overcoming barriers. With the suspect closer to giving a confession, the interrogator must overcome the harriers of fear that prevent the guilty person from telling the truth. For example, here, Williams surmises that Michael knows he will lose his job if he confesses, but he is reluctant to bring this up. Williams understands this fear and brings the subject up himself so that the suspect has no need to.

  He says, "Michael, I bet you're worried about losing your job. But it's your job that put you here in the first place, isn't it? If they had only paid you a decent wage to begin with, you wouldn't have needed that money at all. This is not the end of the world. You've had other jobs before, and you'll have more jobs after this. What you need to do now is tell the truth and get on with your life. We can resolve this here and now, then I can go back to the company and tell them that you cooperated."

  Not only has the interrogator helped alleviate any misgivings about what confessing means to Michael's future, he's also subtly shifted the blame from Michael to the restaurant.

  Compliments. The interrogator must get the suspect to admit to his "dark" side--his misdeeds. That's not easy for anyone to do. To help overcome that barrier, the interrogator should compliment the suspect, taking note of some good attributes he or she possesses.

  Here, Williams lowers his voice and says, "Michael, the only way to put this behind you is to tell the truth. You seem to be an intelligent guy. I think you're intelligent: enough to realize that this is your opportunity to get this situation resolved, right?"

  Again, the hook offers the suspect a chance to simply nod and end the interview. Though Michael again refuses to nod and end the interrogation, Williams notices that the young man will not meet his gaze--another "buy" sign.

  Offering a well-timed compliment has another function. By this point, Williams knows he has established a rapport with the suspect. But Michael may now be concerned that if he confesses, Williams will no longer like or respect him, a common fear of those under interrogation. To overcome this, Williams again takes the initiative.

  "Michael, to be honest with you, I don't really believe you're a thief," says Williams. "I know that something happened here, but I think you were just in a jam and did something out of the ordinary. Isn't that right? Are you a thief, Michael? Or am I right, this is something that just happened this one time?" Not only has Williams offered a solution to Michael's worries, he's also portrayed himself as a sympathetic listener, even a friend.

  Alternative questions. Some suspects may confess at this stage. When they do not, the interrogator will next move on to a set of questions that gives the suspect the illusion of control and helps lead to an admission of guilt. In this case, although Michael is dose to confessing, he's not nodding his head yet.

  Williams says, "Let's make this simple, Michael Was this whole thing
planned in advance, or did the situation just arise and you saw a chance to solve your money problems? Which one is it?"

  Michael tries again to deny the crime, hut the interrogator does not allow the denial, and speaks over Michael's words. "You did take those deposits, Michael. There's no question about it. I just need to know if you were stealing them, or, if I'm right, you were just borrowing them."

  Michael looks down and does not answer. Williams again uses a soothing voice and repeats his sympathetic explanation of what happened with questions designed to lead the suspect to a confession. "I think what happened is that you got in some trouble financially You borrowed the money and thought you could pay it back right away. When you couldn't, you took the next day's deposits to cover the money you took. The next day you still couldn't pay it back, so you did it again. Isn't that what happened?"

  Although Michael again shakes his head to deny the crime, Williams holds up his hands, and follows with a compliment and another leading question.  "Yes it is. That's exactly what I think happened. You know I'm right. And you know what that tells me? It tells me that you're not a thief, that you're basically a good person who got into some trouble. But if you don't tell me the truth, I can't help you. Do you want me to help you?" Slowly, Michael nods his head to agree.

  "Buy" signs. This nod of the head is a strong "buy" sign. It means that Michael is getting ready to tell the truth. Some buy signs are nonverbal, such as an affirmative nod or a head hung in submission. Other times a suspect will ask, "So what would happen to a person who did something like this?"

  Michael is not confessing yet, so Williams moves even closer and offers another alternative question. "Did you steal the money or just borrow it?" Michael doesn't answer. Williams again offers an argument for telling the truth. "If you're the kind of man I think you are, this has got to be eating you up like a cancer. It probably feels like a rock on your chest. Now is the time you can get that rock off your chest, Michael. Because don't think you were really going to steal that money."

  Michael refuses eye contact and his crossed arms now open up: yet another buy sign. Williams tries to further undermine Michael's confidence. "What's going to happen if you don't tell your side of it? What's going to happen if they just go by the facts of the case and the other statements we've taken? Where is that going to leave you?"

  Still refusing to make eye contact, Michael mumbles, "I didn't take it." His voice is so quiet and without confidence that Williams knows that Michael is ready to talk.

  Press for confession. Williams moves in close. He uses a soft, accepting tone to ask alternative and leading questions. He reaches out and touches Michael's arm gently. "Tell the truth, Michael. Put this behind you. Show me that I'm right, that you're a good person who just got caught in a financial bind and did something you wouldn't ordinarily do. I think you intended to pay that money back. Is that what happened? Tell the truth. That's what happened, isn't it?"

  Michael finally nods and agrees. Williams does not revel in his victory; rather, he seals the deal by putting his hand on Michael's arm, and then shakes the boy's hand. "Michael, I'm really proud of you. It takes real courage to tell the truth. I respect you a lot more for telling the truth. Start from the beginning. When did it first start?"

  Michael is again silent for a moment, but Williams' gestures of respect and understanding help him to begin talking freely "My apartment got robbed," he says quietly. "They stole my bill money.

  As this case illustrates, the 10 principles are used again and again
throughout an interrogation until the suspect confesses. By not allowing a suspect to deny guilt and by combining sympathetic scenarios with carefully crafted questions that make confession easier, interrogators can help move a guilty parry to a confession of the crime. While the interrogator needs to be persistent and intense, confessions come when the interrogator sincerely creates a helping, not adversarial, mood.

  Most criminals feel guilt and live in constant fear of discovery. The interrogator helps them conclude that a confession will let them move past the act and get on with their life.

Nathan J. Gordon is director of the Academy for Scientific Investigative Training, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He is a member of ASIS International and the author of Effective Interviewing and Interrogation Techniques.

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