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The Subject Specific Interview Approach

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


In recent years several behavioral science experts have focused their research efforts on reviewing hundreds of investigative interviews and interrogations.  There have been two goals of some of these studies.  One has been to determine how successful the interviewers are at accurately identifying and analyzing the behavioral signs of deception. The second has been to gain greater insight into the investigative interviewing process and learn why some interviewers and their methods are more successful than others.  The results of these studies have been both surprising and enlightening in several ways.

First, investigative interviewers generally do a poor job of spotting deception more than 50% of the time and frequently use behaviors to identify deception that have consistently been proven to be highly unreliable signs of deception. This will be the topic of a future “The Interview Room” article. Second, the interviewing tactics often taught and practiced by most interviewers generate the lowest number of incidents of admissions and confessions.  Despite what most of us as interviewers claim, we are in fact only successful at getting admissions and confessions about one-third of the time.

Two critical studies of the investigative interviewing process utilized the videotapes of nearly 1,000 interviews and interrogations.  The findings from these two studies will be surprising to many experienced and seasoned interviewers but when considered thoughtfully the results make perfect sense.  The two studies identified a multitude of interview and interrogations methods, techniques and strategies from numerous training sources and experts.  Each method was documented when it was used in any of the taped interviews and then correlated with how frequently an admission or confession occurred.  Many of the “tried and true” tactics that we as investigative interviewers swear by produce consistently poor results.  The one outstanding characteristic of the consistently successfully interview was the one that was “subject specific.”  By “subject specific” I mean that the interview dialogue and presentation of proof of evidence to the subject was based on the unique social, psychological, and personal history of the subject who was being interviewed.  It was consistently demonstrated that techniques that may have proven successful on some subjects was totally ineffective with others.  When the interviewer based his interview approach solely on a strict formula there would be a greater chance of failure. When the interviewer recognized the unique individual characteristics of each subject he was highly likely to be successful. Both studies demonstrated that this approach was associated with and admission or confession more than 90% of the time.

The key element in Practical Kinesic Interview & Interrogation® – Tactical Interrogation Phase is to recognize that personality, personal history of past experiences and the individuals unique thinking process is what makes each of us different from each other.  When the interviewer recognizes the unique combination of these factors for each subject and approaches the interview accordingly he or she will dramatically improve their admission and confession rate. The investigative interviewer must learn to perceive the incident from the subject’s point of view.  What would motivate him or her to commit the act – not what would motivate you or the last subject you interviewed act in such a manner.  After allowing the subject to narrate his version of the events, point out to inconsistencies in the story and contradictions between the story and the evidence.  Learn to identify what the subject believes they could lose by continuing their deception and what in the long run that they can gain by accepting responsibility for their actions in such a manner that they feel they will have some control in the outcome.

A frequent point we try to make in Practical Kinesic Interview & Interrogation® is first, to remember to interview the subject who committed the crime and not the crime that was committed. Second, stop interviewing the subject from a preset “game plan” – adjust your dialogue to the subject’s responses and behavior you see and hear during the interview. Finally, stop talking to the subject as if you are talking to yourself – he ain’t you!

Insuring Against False Confession

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


In the last couple of years there has been a growing public interest and media documentation of cases of wrongful conviction.  Many of the more sensational cases overturned and receiving high profile media coverage have been those that where resolved using new DNA technology. In some cases however, one of key points upon which the wrongful conviction turned was a false confession by the suspect.
Despite overwhelming evidence, there are still some investigators, prosecutors and members of the general public who believe that there is no such thing as a false
confession and it doesn’t really matter because the subject most likely is guilty of some other undiscovered crime or offense anyway.  Unfortunately there will always be people who will never be convinced of the phenomenon but a more important question for us as investigative interviewers is what are the conditions that could possibly exist that create such confessions and what can we do to prevent such
possible miscarriages of justice?

Although this e-zine, “The Interview Room” goes out to subscribers in at least five countries outside the United States, I feel that the United States Supreme Court
definition of a “confession” could still be used as a reliable standard from which to establish the goals and objectives of our interviews.  At the same time, if you are
a reader whose work is in the private sector, intelligence community, military or even adult and juvenile probation and parole, the objectives still remain the same but translated to your specific needs.  In the case James v. State of Georgia, App. 282, 71, S.E. 2d 568 (1952) the court defined a confession as: “An accused person knowingly makes an acknowledgement that he or she committed or participated in
the commission of the criminal act.  This acknowledgement must be broad enough to comprehend every essential element necessary to make a case against the defendant.”  Does the confession you have obtained contain the critical elements
of “causation” and “criminal intent?”

First, the case against a subject can be protected from the fatal flaw of being a labeled a false confession if it contains the subject’s descriptive details of his or her
exact actions, behaviors, or participation that “caused” the event to occur ñ malicious, negligent or otherwise   How the subject specifically entered the house, the point of origin of the fire and materials used, how they accessed the
computer system, physically approached the victim, weapon used and in what manner or form, method of egress from the scene, any attempt at displacement, obliteration, or disposal of evidence such as clothing, the murder weapon,
etc.  Has he or she told you details that the only way they would know those details is if they had been to the scene and committed the offense?  At the same time those details should be confirmed by the presence of physical evidence in some form.  In addition, are you sure that you as the interviewer, by the way you have conducted your interview, asked of phrased your questions in some form that has
inadvertently given the subject such details thereby contaminating the subject’s statement, a common error made in the interview room?

Second what was the subject’s initial “intent” when engaging in their behavior?  Your subject’s statement should not only reflect that the subject did something bad or criminal but also that they had “bad intent” when the incident occurred.
The outcome may not be what the subject intended, anticipated, or every expected but would the results have been the same without some form of intent on the part of
your subject?  Does your subject’s statement disclose that their behaviors where malicious by virtue of information they have supplied that their actions were wanton, to what degree was the intent and was it a conscious act on their
part?  Is it apparent from the physical evidence and your subject’s statement that there was time for deliberation of their part?  Where there moments when it is obvious that the subject was at a one or more crossroads in the decision
making process and at these opportune moments chose a specific course of action?  Does the subject’s remarks validate evidence that this act was premeditated in that the subject engaged in behaviors in advance of the event that “facilitated” a specific outcome by arranging, orchestrating, staging or specific planning?

The burden of the existence of false confessions rests on the shoulders of the interviewer.  A confession that contains the critical elements of “causation” and “intent” that have be obtained without contamination from the interviewer solidifies the reliability of the confession. An individual without such specific knowledge could not provide such critical information.   Justice is ultimately served for the victim, the correct subject, the professional interviewer and ultimately the public’s faith in its
criminal justice system.