Interviewing Erratic Subjects

By Pinizzoto, Anthony J.; Deshazor, George D. | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, November 1997 | Go to article overview

Interviewing Erratic Subjects


Pinizzoto, Anthony J., Deshazor, George D., The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin


During the morning, Smith appeared organized and coherent to his family and co-workers. Patrons of the small restaurant where he ate lunch report that Smith argued heatedly with Jones over some wages that Smith claimed were due him. The two men left the restaurant together, still arguing over the matter. Two hours later, police officers are holding Smith for Jones' murder. During initial questioning, Smith admits to killing Jones but claims that he was driven to do so by some irresistible impulse resulting from a delusional state. Smith exhibits erratic behavior during the questioning and as police officers transport him to the precinct office for booking. When the case goes to trial several months later, Smith's attorneys base their client's defense on the claim of insanity.

Although the defendant in this case clearly may have undergone a significant mood shift in the hours preceding the homicide, it does not necessarily indicate a true lapse into delusion. And, while the subject's erratic behavior during questioning might support his later claims of insanity, could it merely be the reaction of a person who has committed a reckless and life-changing crime? What information could investigators collect that would help prosecuting attorneys see that justice is served when a defendant claims lack of criminal responsibility due to insanity?

This article focuses on the insanity defense and observations investigators can make--as well as questions they can ask--that could assist courts in determining an offender's state of mind at the time an offense occurred. By collecting the right information, investigators can help the court make the appropriate decision regarding a defendant's sanity and ability to stand trial.

THE INSANITY DEFENSE

Despite a popular misconception to the contrary, the insanity defense is relatively uncommon in the American court experience. The legal elements upon which a subject is judged to be insane at the time of an incident vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Most, however, reflect the basic concepts of the American Law Institute (ALI) Rule, used in 20 states and all federal courts. The ALI Rule states, "A person is not responsible for criminal conduct if at the time of such conduct as a result of mental disease or defect he lacks substantial capacity either to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law?

Courts often request that mental health professionals help assist in determining the mental state (mens rea) of subjects at the time of a crime. A primary concern of the court and mental health systems in this area is to determine what individuals intended as a consequence of their actions.

One of the methods mental health professionals use to assess the mental state of an individual is to conduct a mental status examination. A complete examination provides a description of the subject's current mental functioning by assessing various aspects of the individual's cognitive and emotional states. Specific areas assessed include the subject's general appearance and behavior, speech, thought processes, and judgment. These examinations can last as little as several minutes or extend for several hours.

DOCUMENTING A SUBJECT'S BEHAVIOR

Law enforcement investigators are not trained to conduct such extended or intense mental status examinations--nor should they attempt to do so. However, much of their training and experience in behavior assessment, interviewing, and interrogation affords them the skills needed to collect information that could prove very relevant in court.

Generally, information that investigators collect focuses on a subject's behavior and thought processes prior to the incident in question, at the time of the incident, after the incident, and behavior and responses during questioning. In some cases, two or more categories converge, for example, a subject might be apprehended at the scene and questioned within moments of the offense. …

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