Cases are won or buried on the strength of statements. Be very sure that you learn to do this most important part of the investigation. On the practical side, be sure that your audio or video equipment works. Take several pens in case one doesn't work, and prepare your questions ahead of time.
Statements can be taken from witnesses or defendants. If taking statements at the behest of an attorney, you'll usually do so in the court recorder's office and she'll take it all down. If you are doing the interview yourself, take your secretary or another investigator with a laptop to type the statement as it's being recorded. Recording your statement is a must. You have no axe to grind. You're looking for facts not railroading anyone, so nothing can be said that shouldn't be recorded.
A PI may be afraid of recording because answers may be a surprise or he may make mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes, especially in early work. Yet a recording protects you from witnesses or defendants who decide to change their minds, who blame you for leading them in a certain direction, or who cry coercion or any other defense a good attorney can dream up.
When you take statements, remember that you're neither defense nor prosecution. No matter which side hires you, you're not trying to prove either side's point. The moment you begin to elicit information that leans toward a conclusion for either side, you've compromised your finest tool — objectivity. You are an information gatherer. Let the attorneys slug it out using that information.
The fact that you need to remain objective doesn't mean that you're not trying to find out who is guilty, and that you won't use strategy to discover information that may lead to a confession by the guilty party. Objectivity prevents you from being so sure that someone is “the guy” that you use these strategies to coerce an innocent person to confess. Innocent people confess all the time. The motives of some are still a mystery, as there are “professional confessors” known to all investigators. Professional investigators aren't looking to get a confession at all costs; they're looking to find the actual offender, not just another cleared case.
When you arrange to take a statement from someone who is identified as a suspect, inform her counsel of the statement date and time. Law enforcement officers must do this, and it is in the private investigator's best interest to do it as well. Keep length in mind; you do not want the statement to be too long. This will guard against charges that you've placed the subject under undue duress. For the same reason, be sensitive to the subject's thirst or requests to go to the restroom. If you try to withhold these very basic needs in an attempt to encourage her to divulge further information, the information may not be admissible in court.
Most PIs use audio to record statements, but if you want to be able to go back and study the subject's reaction to your questions, use video to record the statement. Should the case end up in court, video allows these reactions to be visible to the jury as well. The following information should be included at the beginning of any statement you take:
State the date, time, day, and place
State your name, occupation, and name of your agency
Name everyone in the room — an attorney, another investigator, police, court recorder — the fewer people in your interview, the better
Ask the subject to speak her full name
Ask the subject to speak her address
Ask the subject to speak her phone number
Ask the subject to speak her social security number
Ask the subject to speak her occupation and name and place of employment
Add any information you need. Speak clearly, and should anyone else speak identify them immediately. Be polite and respectful. If your interviewee refers or points to something, identify it and have her confirm it. If she nods or shakes her head, ask her to speak her answer. If she mumbles, have her repeat it. Your questions should be asked from a prepared list, but let the answers lead you to others. If she mentions names, ask her to clarify who these people are and spell the names if she's able.
At the end of the statement, let the typist quickly review the tape and add anything you missed. Get the interviewee some coffee and ask incidental questions until the statement is printed. Next, the statement should be read by the interviewee, who initials each page and signs the last page. If he finds a mistake, he should correct it, and initial the alteration.
It's very important to intentionally include several small mistakes in the printed copy. This will allow the subject to correct them, proving to the court that the opportunity to make corrections was afforded the interviewee. As a result, anything that he doesn't correct will stand, and will be difficult for his attorney to argue against later. Finally, you should sign the statement, along with a witness.
Statements should include the following elements above the subject's signature line: “Without coercion or promises of gain, monetary or otherwise, I attest that all information on all___ pages of the above statement is true and correct to the best of my knowledge. I have read the statement and initialed changes I have made.” Make sure you have an audio recording of the subject reading the statement or a video recording of her reading and signing it.
If you do not have access to a computer, have the interviewee write out her statement. Many investigators have her write it anyway, and sign or initial it along with the typed version. It's the recommended way to do it, but some people feel that it takes too much time. If, for any reason, she can't — if she's injured, sick, or emotionally distraught — be sure to record her admittance of this. If someone close to the subject is in the area, let that person write the statement. Don't write the statement yourself unless there's no other way. If you must write for her, as a protection, record the subject telling you what to write, as well as her signature of the results.
When the statement has been signed and initialed, put it out of sight and never return it to the subject. It's not uncommon for her to become panicky at the possible consequences of her statement and attempt to take it back from you. If she wants a copy, make one. If no machine is near, tell her you'll send one. Follow through and send the copy in case you must speak to this person again, but never put the original back in her hands.