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False Confession: Who’s Responsible?

Stan B. Walters, CSP
“The Lie Guy®”

Recently I was comparing “notes” with a social psychologist who is conducting research on cues to deception.  She has been collecting data about the lie cues taught by the numerous interview and interrogation courses and attempting to validate the reliability of those cues.  She shared with me a comment made by an instructor in one of these courses that not only did she find disturbing but that I find at least professionally if not ethically appalling.  A question was raised in class about the issue of false confessions and how they should be handled.  The instructor informed the participants that the interviewer should blame the subject for the false confession.


With the country’s legal system current focus on wrongful convictions and false confessions, how irresponsible could a professional investigator be to blame a false confession on the suspect?  The objective of the investigative interviewer should be finding the truth by accurately spotting deception and ultimately obtaining a legal and ethical admission or confession.  Such professionals should also be keenly aware of what methods and techniques could induce a highly suggestible subject to make a false confession.


One issue that immediately concerns me about the instructor’s statement is there must be some problem with the human behavior cues that are being taught in this course.  We are expected to spot a subject’s apparent deception regarding their involvement in some inappropriate or criminal act by observing and identifying specific verbal and nonverbal cues of deception. If the cues being taught are reliable discriminators of deception, then why would the interviewer not be able to spot the very same signs that would undoubtedly be generated by a subject who is falsely confessing?


The objective of any investigation is to uncover the real story. Doesn’t the fact that there has been a false confession run completely counter to that objective? The fact that the investigator has become focused on this subject as being the person responsible for the commission of the crime leads one to believe that there may in fact have been a faulty or inadequate investigative effort which would include the identification, collection and preservation of evidence and more importantly the interviews of other sources, victims and witnesses. Once again, how has the interviewer missed the cues of omission and embellishment by the victims, witnesses or informants that I assume have already been interviewed during the investigation.


A couple of months ago I wrote an article for this newsletter that was entitled ‘Pre-Conception: An Interrogation Assassin’.  My premise in that article was one of if not the most insidious states of mind that an interviewer could have any pre-conception about a persons credibility and honesty about an issue.  With an inaccurate assessment of the subject’s honesty and relying on signs of deception that have been proven to be unreliable and then proceeding without considering that their technique may increase the chances of a false confession is the path to disaster.


If the investigator is prepared to take the credit for solving a case and wants the credit for getting a confession from a subject then he or she is also are responsible for a false confession.  Blaming the subject for their false confessions is an absolutely unacceptable excuse.  Our job is to find the truth.  A false confession does not serve justice.

Pre-conception: An Interrogation Assassin.

by Stan B. Walters, CSP
“The Lie Guy®”

There can be many ways and reasons an interrogation can fail. Among the many possible scenarios, we can fail to get a confession, we may get a false confession, or the subject just may plain flat refuse to talk or cooperate in any form.  One of the most deadly enemies of a successful interview or interrogation is the ‘pre-conception assassin.’  Let’s look at three tactics the ‘pre- conception assassin’ can use to kill your interview or interrogation.


One tactic employed by the pre-conception assassin is to convince the interviewer that the subject will be totally credible and has absolutely no intention of being misleading or deceptive.  This is an easy kill.  The assassin gets the interviewer to just simply ignore any and all signs of possible stress response to any questions and ultimately any lie signs.  If you can’t see the signs then any negative perceptions about the person’s honesty just simply go away.  Just cover your brain with the magic sheet and the scary deception monster goes away because if you can’t see it, it just doesn’t exist.


The second tactic our assassin employs is to turn the interviewer into a raving paranoid.  This requires the interviewer to assume the mind set that everyone is guilty of something, he just hasn’t figured out yet of what crime. Now the interviewer has to identify symptoms of evasion and deception that don’t exist but every movement and every answer has some hidden nefarious meaning. The interviewer is convinced the subject has got to be lying he just has to get the subject to believe the same thing and confess.


Finally, our pre-conception assassin has to  the interviewer’s control question formulation and presentation.  The interviewer should never ask a question whose answer may contradict his preconceived beliefs.  Ignorance will truly be bliss.  Only ask those questions that further support your conclusions and don’t give up until you get the answer you want.  Truth is not really your objective in either case – just get a confession or exonerate the subject at any and all costs. These are the interviewers who proclaim they have a 100% percent confession rate or a 100% cleared case rate.


Look at your mind set before you enter the interview room.  Are you an accomplice to the ‘pre-conception assassin?’ Is your ultimate objective for any interview and interrogation finding the truth no matter how disturbing, disappointing, or unpopular that may be?  When we stop searching for the truth, we’ve stopped serving justice.