Jul 07 2010

Criminal Interviewing Strategies: Probing for Inconsistencies

While a criminal may have put some thought into creating a coherent story that’s hard to disprove, probing questions can move the conversation into areas where he has to make up a lie as he goes along.  The more you push for details, the harder it is to keep up a lie.  Here’s an excerpt of a fictional interview between an investigator and a criminal suspect.

INVESTIGATOR: What were you doing yesterday afternoon?

SUSPECT JAKE: I was at Jill’s house.


SUSPECT JAKE:  We were watching the game.


SUSPECT JAKE: The Bears game. [Note: make sure the Bears were actually playing on the day in question.]

INVESTIGATOR: How was the game?


INVESTIGATOR: Does any play in particular stick out in your mind?

SUSPECT JAKE: Cutler threw a pretty sweet touchdown.  To Hester, I think.  [Note: The accuracy of this statement doesn’t actually matter much.  Our goal here is to lock him into the “I saw a Bears game” story.  If it turns out that the Bears actually didn’t play that day at a time consistent with his story, we want to know for sure that he’s lying.   Otherwise, he may be able to claim that it might have been another team he saw].

INVESTIGATOR: What did you guys do for dinner?

SUSPECT JAKE: We ordered Chinese takeout.

INVESTIGATOR: During the game?

SUSPECT JAKE: No, after.

INVESTIGATOR:  From where?

SUSPECT JAKE: The Golden Palace. [Note: call the Golden Palace and see if they have a record of an order.  Make sure that the order was placed after the Bears game ended.  Also, speak with the delivery-boy to see if he can place Jake and/or Jill at the scene].

INVESTIGATOR: Who placed the order?


INVESTIGATOR: What did you have?

SUSPECT JAKE: Orange chicken, I think.

INVESTIGATOR:  Was it good? [We don’t actually care about his opinion of the food, of course–we’re trying to lock him into a story again.  The more you get him to say about the food, the harder it is for him to back out later and say “well, it might have been Burger King.  I don’t remember.”]

SUSPECT JAKE: It was okay.

INVESTIGATOR:  What drink did you order?

SUSPECT JAKE: A Sprite.  [Check with the restaurant to make sure that they deliver drinks–some places don’t.]

[end excerpt]

These questions give us a lot of information that can be proven true or false.  The Bears either were playing that day or they weren’t.  The Golden Palace either received an order after the Bears game or it didn’t.  The Golden Palace either delivers drinks or it doesn’t.

You can also interview other witnesses to make sure that their stories match up.  When Jill is asked what kind of food they had that night, will she say Chinese takeout?  (Note: Minor discrepancies, like naming a different Chinese restaurant, may be just fuzzy memories).  But if she says they went out to a burger place, then obviously at least one of them is lying.  When she gets asked who placed the order, will her answer line up with Jake’s (that she did?)  Does she remember what food Jake had?  (Understandably, she might not.  But if she remembers that he did have chicken and a Sprite, they’re either telling the truth or have rehearsed the lie unusually well).

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3 responses so far

3 Responses to “Criminal Interviewing Strategies: Probing for Inconsistencies”

  1. Loysquaredon 08 Jul 2010 at 11:00 am

    What impresses me the most about these “interviews” with well prepared detectives and investigators, is their ability to read/study body language! Have you ever heard of Dr. Cal Lightman or the awesome [and former FBI] agent Bill Brown? I’ve always wanted to do that! Someday I will, someday I will… haha.

  2. Stefanieon 28 Aug 2011 at 6:06 pm

    This reminded me of a YouTube video I saw the other day (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6wXkI4t7nuc). It was called “Dont [sic] Talk to Police.” The video is really long, but it has some great info for people writing interrogation scenes. At the end, a police officer explains some of the ways he gets suspects to admit their guilt. His ideas could easily be adapted into a story, so I thought some people might find it useful. Just so you know, I have no connection with that video or that YouTube channel or anything. I just thought the tips in the video might be helpful to other writers.

  3. Brian McKenzie (B. Mac)on 28 Aug 2011 at 7:24 pm

    Thanks for the video. (I also recommend Part 2, which is a lecture by a veteran police officer). Some psychological tactics that a writer could use…

    –Most people like to talk about themselves, so a police officer could convince the suspect that he’s trying to understand the suspect’s side of the story. The cop can offer him plausible defenses, like “Was it self-defense?” (If the suspect admits to the killing, the medical examiner can challenge the self-defense claim at trial, but his admission that he was involved in the killing still stands).

    –Wearing down suspects. 3+ hours in an interrogation room with a team of cops can be so unpleasant that some suspects will talk to make it end. (Be careful–under enough duress, innocent people may falsely confess, so the police officers would definitely want to independently corroborate as much as possible. One way to do so would be to ask the suspect for details that only somebody involved in the crime would know, like what sort of gun was used in the killing).

    –Flattery. In the second part of “Don’t Talk to Cops,” the police officer mentions one case where he flattered a suspect into revealing his methods by telling him how impressed he was with the crime. “How did you do it?” From there, it was easy enough to call up the flea markets in the area and find the evidence to solve the case.

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