Blue Line

Why Offenders Confess

June 3, 2011  By Louis C. Senese

2491 wordsWhy Offenders Confess by Louis C. SeneseThreats and promises do work in obtaining admissions, but they are illegal. “Tell me you did this and you’ll keep your job,” or, “Tell me you did this or you’re going to jail right now, and I have friends on the inside that owe me, get it?” The obvious problem with these statements however, is that they very well may cause an innocent individual to admit to crimes they have not committed. To properly obtain a legally acceptable confession, such tactics must obviously be avoided. The question then becomes, what would legally persuade a guilty offender to confess? In my three plus decades of experience and our firm’s six decades of practice we have observed ten primary factors that contribute to a suspect’s decision to admit one’s wrongdoing. These factors are not mutually exclusive, and, in fact, several of them may simultaneously affect the suspect’s decision to confess. Understanding these factors will assist investigators in their ability to elicit legally acceptable confessions from guilty offenders. Most criminal acts are stimulated by a variety of motives – greed, revenge, anger, passion, envy, etc. In developing an interrogational strategy, it is extremely important to try to ascertain during the interview process or from available investigative information, the offender’s probable motive for committing the crime in order to develop an appropriate strategy and “theme” during the interrogation.An interrogation theme is a monologue presented by the investigator in which reasons and excuses are offered that will serve to psychologically (not legally) justify, or minimize the moral seriousness of the suspect’s criminal behavior. Generally, themes are directed toward the offender’s motive(s) for committing the crime. As an example, Corey stole one thousand dollars from his employer because he felt that he was underpaid, underappreciated and overworked. Since the motives in this example are anger and job frustration, the primary theme would be to blame his employer for not paying Corey enough money. Additionally, his behavior could be minimized by contrasting one theft versus hundreds of different thefts or suggesting that it was only one thousand dollars and not one-hundred thousand dollars that he took. The interrogation approach or strategy should focus on developing interrogation themes based on the offender’s likely motive(s) in combination with the factors that influence a suspect’s decision to confess. Themes presented to the subject in this manner will increase an investigator’s confession rate and ability to successfully resolve investigations. The ultimate goal of an interrogation is to learn the truth and to obtain voluntary inculpatory and corroborated statements from the guilty offender. Factors That Influence a Suspect’s Decision to Confess1. Justification. Most individuals that commit a crime know that they violated the law but in one form or another have rationalized their behavior, in some cases believing that anyone else in the same situation would have done the same thing. The employee who steals from his employer may use the fact that he feels overworked, underappreciated and underpaid as his justification. Likewise, the burglar may feel that he cannot get a decent job due to prior criminal convictions so that he has no alternative but to break into homes and businesses. The same would hold true for the child molester who rationalizes his behavior because in his mind he was not hurting the victim but was showing love and affection. Therefore, during the development of the theme the investigator should present several examples of psychological justification for the offense. Doing so will help to create an environment of empathy and understanding as well as the perception that most anyone, under similar circumstances, could have committed the same act.2. Minimization. Offenders often times minimize the moral seriousness of their behavior, convincing themselves that the offense they committed was not really that terrible. Consequently, during the interrogation the investigator should contrast what the suspect did with a similar but much more heinous crime that the suspect could have committed, thereby creating the impression that what the suspect did is not really that bad. Someone that sexually touches a child understands that their conduct was inappropriate and illegal – that is why they have tried to conceal it. This specific behavior could be minimized during the interrogation by contrasting simply touching a child with raping a child; the investigator can contrast this isolated incident with engaging in similar behavior on numerous occasions with many different children. Furthermore, the investigator could contrast acting on impulse versus carefully premeditating and planning the act. Another minimization theme that may be appropriate would be to offer the suspect the idea that his intention was to sexually educate the child, not to sexually harm the child in anyway. These approaches do not relieve the suspect of criminal responsibility but they offer the suspect a face-saving reason for their behavior, making it easier for them to acknowledge their guilt.3. Patience and Persistence. Two of the key factors that contribute to the successful conclusion of an interrogation are the patience and persistence exhibited by the investigator. The investigator cannot simply ask, “Did you do this?” and expect a confession. Likewise, the investigator cannot simply ask an offender, “Tell me why you did this”, and expect an explanation for the crime. For most offenders it is not a single statement that was made during the interrogation that prompted their decision to tell the truth, but rather the cumulative effect of the entire process. The interrogator’s confidence in the suspect’s guilt and his knowledge about the crime can have a convincing effect on the offender. Some suspects simply get tired of living with their deceit and want to start fresh. Since the interrogation is essentially a monologue in which the investigator offers justification and engages in some minimization of the crime, the investment of time into the interrogation process is a major consideration. It is important that the investigator exhibits patience with the suspect’s denials and persistence in his efforts to develop an effective theme. 4. Privacy. When you have a personal problem are you more likely to discuss it with a close personal friend in a private setting, or with a group of people in a public arena? Undoubtedly you would prefer to discuss it with one person in private. The same principal holds true for the offender. In most cases it is easier for suspects to acknowledge their wrongdoing to one person in a quiet, private room that when several individuals are sitting in the room. It is easier to confess to one person as opposed to two or three in the room. Therefore, there should only be as few people in the room during an interrogation as possible – preferably only one investigator interrogating the offender. If there is a need to have a witness in the room (perhaps a second investigator) then this observer should not be seated in the suspect’s direct line of vision but rather off to the side and out of the way. Furthermore, any interruptions or distractions caused by phones ringing or people walking in and out of the room should be eliminated.5. Trust. Most suspects are more likely to confess to someone who they trust or who they feel understands their situation. Conducting a non-accusatory interview prior to any interrogation is an absolutely crucial step in the investigator’s effort to establish rapport and trust with the suspect. Even if there is overwhelming evidence against the offender, an interview should be conducted so that the investigator has the opportunity to portray an objective, neutral and non-accusatory demeanor, thereby creating some level of trust and rapport with the suspect, as well as creating a comfortable environment for the offender. Throughout the interview the investigator should remain relaxed, cordial, and polite while avoiding any skeptical tone of voice when he responds to the suspect’s responses. During the interrogation the investigator should be very careful about lying to the suspect about evidence or other aspects of the investigation. If an investigator is caught or is perceived to be lying to the suspect he may lose any credibility or trust that he has established with the suspect. As an example, if during the interrogation of a suspect regarding a very serious or heinous crime, the investigator tells the subject, “I would have done the same thing you did”, most offenders would not believe the statement, thereby breaking any bond of trust that was established. Modifying this statement, however, could maintain some element of rapport and trust. For example, if the investigator had said, “If I was under the same set of circumstances you were under, I’m not sure how I would have reacted…I don’t know what I might have done.” This allows the investigator to maintain his credibility with the suspect. The same is certainly true with regards to physical evidence. If the investigator tells the suspect that they have him on video surveillance running out of the building before the bomb exploded, and the suspect knows that he was the look out while his partner placed the bomb in the building, he knows that we are lying to him and we will lose any credibility we have developed up to that point.6. Conscience. Most people have a conscience or a moral compass that helps them to differentiate right from wrong. Some suspects admit their guilt because they want to atone for what they have done and are hoping to relieve themselves of the tremendous burden of guilt. In some instances a feeling of remorse for the victim also factors into the motivation to confess, as the offender’s moral conscience begins to outweigh his ability to comfortably live with his lies. Themes that focus on rationalization, justification and minimization will be very effective with this offender. On the other hand, some suspects with significant psychological problems have to be approached in a different way.Sociopaths, who lack any sense of social responsibility, require more specific motivation to confess. These individuals conceal their crimes for fear of being caught and the related punishment, not for feelings of guilt or remorse. Therefore, the sociopath would be more susceptible to a factual approach in which the investigator presents to him evidence that has been developed during the investigation that points to his guilt, suggesting that if presented to a group of reasonable people, most would be convinced he committed the crime. The implication would be that this is the suspect’s opportunity to explain any mitigating circumstances that should be considered regarding his acknowledgment of the crime.7. Leniency. Clearly the investigator cannot make any promises of leniency to a suspect in an effort to solicit a confession. However, the courts have stated that if a suspect “engages in wishful thinking” (i.e., believing that if he gives a good reason for committing the crime it will mitigate his punishment) it will not invalidate his confession. The primary factors that many offenders believe will impact on possible leniency regarding their subsequent punishment include: a) being cooperative during the interview and interrogation, b) making restitution if asked, c) explaining the unique and extenuating circumstance for committing the crime, d) showing atonement or remorse for their actions and, e) minimization – believing that they did something that was wrong but that it could have been much worse. These areas should be considered when developing a strategy for the best themes to use during the interrogation. During the non-interview that precedes the interrogation, a suspect may be asked the behavior-provoking question, “What do you think should happen to the person who did this?” If the suspect responds, “Probably get some help.” this would suggest what he would like to happen to him. Furthermore, if the suspect responds to the behavior provoking question, “Do you think the person who did this deserves a second chance?” by saying, “Well, if he is sorry for what he did then maybe he should get counseling.” he is signaling to the investigator an approach that may be effective in the interrogation. Specifically, he is indicating that a theme that suggests that the suspect was sorry for what they had done then that might be a factor to be considered before any final decision as to punishment is made. 8. Evidence. The more evidence that the suspect believes is against him the more likely it is that he will confess to the crime that he has committed. While the United States Supreme Court has stated that the police can misrepresent to a suspect the evidence that they have against him (for example, falsely telling him that his accomplice has confessed or that his fingerprints have been found at the scene) it can be a risky ploy as outlined in point #5 above.Consequently, the most effective interrogation is one armed with substantial evidence that has been developed from a thorough investigation. 9. Status. Being incarcerated for some is a status symbol by providing the proverbial street PhD. Many offenders are revered by their counterparts based upon the crimes they have committed. For some, being caught and incarcerated is not viewed as a negative, but rather a positive. Since the offender did not “rat out or “snitch” on anyone else and accepted the consequences, this validates his trustworthiness. Complimenting this offender during the interrogation as being bold, clever and daring would further serve to confirm his ego. Minimizing the offense in this situation may not be advisable; it may better serve to acknowledge the maximization of the offense.10. Promise. There will always be some that will wait until a “legal promise” of leniency is presented, such as a plea bargain admitting to a lesser included offense in exchange for a less severe sentence. This is generally not an option for the interrogator to propose but rather the prosecutor. If the crime is very serious and co-conspirators are involved, another “legal promise” is a suggestion that the offender might qualify for the witness protection plan. Even though such “legal promises” are used to ultimately acquire a confession, the interrogator should not feel that his technique was ineffective. Conversely, in all probability it was the cumulative effect of appropriate interrogation themes in tandem with incorporating many of the factors why offenders confess that persuaded the suspect to tell the truth.There are no guarantees that investigators can persuade every offender to confess. But incorporating the above strategies into an interrogation may pave additional paths on the road to the ultimate goal of obtaining a legally acceptable confession. Louis C. Senese is vice president of John E. Reid and Associates.  He has conducted in excess of 8,000 interviews and interrogations and has presented hundreds of training seminars worldwide regarding specialized interview and interrogation tactics. For more information on interrogation tactics and themes, visit, go to the store and look for the book, Anatomy of Interrogation Themes by Louis C. Senese.

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