Criminal Confessions: Overcoming the Challenges

By Napier, Michael R.; Adams, Susan H. | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, November 2002 | Go to article overview

Criminal Confessions: Overcoming the Challenges

Napier, Michael R., Adams, Susan H., The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin

American law enforcement consists of dedicated, talented men and women of integrity and vision. Such officers would not sacrifice their sworn duty to catch a criminal by knowingly allowing the conviction of an innocent suspect. To do so would leave a criminal free to act again. Investigators attempt to identify, charge, and prosecute the criminal population by operating within an ethical framework in diverse, sometimes uncertain, but always challenging circumstancess.

Widely used law enforcement interview and interrogation techniques recently have come under scrutiny. Fundamental interview and interrogation principles can counter the criticisms, however, and safeguard the confessions by compiling solid, incriminating evidence.


Some critics of law enforcement techniques have gained notoriety, as well as some credibility.' Several criticisms earn merit by reminding investigators of practical procedures to safeguard the interviewers' most valued work product, the confession.

Critics use the term "coercive" to describe interview and interrogation tactics, claiming that they result in a coerced confession. The difficulty of identifying, with certainty, the number of confessions obtained through coercion hampers the critics' position. (2) Acquiring an accurate representation of false confessions obtained under police questioning remains imperative, and ongoing research attempts to address this need. (3) Even if each alleged false confession was indeed deceptive, the occurrence of alleged false confessions, when viewed in the framework of the millions of suspect interviews conducted annually, is statistically minuscule. Yet, professional officers view a single false confession as one too many.

The challenges to law enforcement interview tactics can be grouped into five categories. The application of corresponding interview principles, which involve simple and appropriate adjustments in style and technique, can address the criticism of law enforcement interview tactics. The application of these corresponding principles will enhance the suspect interview processes and strengthen the admissibility of confessions. When used regularly, these principles will illustrate the good-faith efforts of law enforcement in handling the investigative responsibilities of identifying suspects and obtaining constitutionally admissible confessions.


Challenge: Reading the Suspect's Behavior

One censure of police procedures involves observing the behavior of suspects in the interview room and selecting specific suspects for more intense investigative inquiry. Critics allege that an officer's ability to interpret behavior, such as the aversion of direct eye contact, is inadequate to protect the innocent from unreasonable investigative focus, (4) which may cause an improper concentration of limited police resources on the wrong suspect, thereby allowing the guilty party to escape detection. Critics accuse the police of placing excessive reliance on "hunches" and ''on-the-spot reading'' of verbal and nonverbal characteristics, using methods that are neither scientifically valid nor reliable. Investigations may focus on the wrong person because techniques do not distinguish between stressful responses caused by deception and responses to stress caused simply by accusatory interviewing. (5) Behaviors improperly interpreted by investigators may take on the weight of perceived evidence and increase the intensity of the police focus.

Interview Principle: Follow the Facts

Some cases do not contain the gift of clear evidence to follow on the path to the case solution. Investigators, therefore, rely on investigative experience and anecdotal lessons to identify responses consistent with known deceivers or individuals with guilty knowledge. Law enforcement must place "gut instincts" in context, however, by comparing them with investigative and evidentiary facts, which take precedence over instincts. …

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