Obtaining Confessions

If you think confessions are obtained by officers standing over a suspect who cowers and sweats under a bare bulb, you'd be surprised to witness a professional interrogation. Law enforcement has learned a thing or two about interrogation over the years, and it's rarely conducted like that anymore. Intelligent officers use finesse and sometimes even charm to convince a suspect to confess.

According to Michael R. Napier and Susan H. Adams, M.A., there are several magic words or phrases that can induce suspects to confess. Some of these are, “anyone in your situation might have,” “accidents happen,” and “everybody makes mistakes.” By listening to the suspect during the initial interview, an investigator can ascertain the defense mechanism this person might have used to justify her crimes — rationalization, projection, or minimization.

By using these RPMs as the basis of magic phrases, the investigator allows the suspect to save face by speaking her own rationalizations back to her. Using phrases such as these, investigators need to do one or more of these four things in order to obtain confessions:

  1. Rationalize subject's actions — “I can understand how you might …”

  2. Project the blame to others — “Somebody like that can be difficult to deal with.”

  3. Minimize the crime — “Accidents can happen …”

  4. Provide reasons for telling the truth — “You're the only one who can tell your side of the story.”

No one benefits from a false confession. The innocent pay the price for the guilty, who go free, perhaps to offend again. If you have any idea that there's something amiss with the confession, investigate further. Trust your instincts.

You might have trouble believing that innocent people confess to crimes, but they do. There are all kinds of reasons people confess: Some do it to protect someone they love; some who do it are mentally disturbed; some are guilty of another crime or perceived crime and want to be punished; and some confessors have no discernible motive.

Investigators can become hardened to the possibility that confessions are false. The reason is that almost everyone recants a confession as soon as an attorney explains the consequences and provides a possible defense. Very few offenders actually admit to their crimes, so it's easier to view a recanting as false rather than entertain the possibility that the confession might have been false. The investigator doesn't have x-ray vision into anyone's mind, but as long as he uses good judgment and abides by the law, he's done his job in an imperfect system.

Paranoid Suspects

Sometimes, offenders become so paranoid that they must find out what the police or investigators know. It's not unusual for them to report as witnesses about the very crime they committed. In this way, they try to accomplish several things. First, they want to find out what information is already known concerning the crime; second, they attempt to provide false information they believe will take the investigation in a different direction; and third, they hope their presence as a witness will keep the investigation away from them.

Sometimes, offenders are fascinated by the fact that they're the star of it all. It's all about them, and they delight in their secret knowledge. Many of these won't be able to keep it secret, however; they long for the spotlight and will often make mistakes that result in arrest. At this point, the entire world knows who they are and what they were able to do. Sometimes, they'll even talk if it serves their purpose of gaining stardom. Others toy with investigators, enjoying their sense of power over the authorities.

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