Avoid the Biggest Investigation Mistake

Deciding on a suspect’s guilt or innocence before the investigation is complete can lead to false confessions, false convictions and false acquittals

Posted by Dawn Lomer in Article on January 31st, 2012

There are two big problems with using scare tactics in investigation interviews. One, you may scare the suspect into keeping silent, and two; you may scare the suspect into confessing to a crime he or she didn’t commit.

More importantly, if you’re resorting to scare tactics to coax a confession from a suspect, you’ve probably already made the biggest mistake you could make in an investigation: deciding on the suspect’s guilt before the interviews even begin. The use of tactics such as misleading the suspect about the consequences of a confession or applying strong psychological pressure on a weak suspect indicate that you think he or she is guilty.

Biggest Mistake

This “confirmation bias”, according to interrogation expert and author Don Rabon, is one of the biggest mistakes investigators make. They make up their mind about the case either beforehand or too quickly, he says, then they look for facts that line up with their theory, filtering out contrary information without even realizing it.

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Interrogation that is geared toward getting incriminating statements or the confession from a suspect, rather than simply gathering the facts in a case, is dangerous and unfair. It’s how false confessions come about.

Just ask Nga Truong, the young mother accused of smothering her baby to death in 2008.  During her interrogation immediately after the incident, the 16-year-old confessed to the murder. She spent three years in jail awaiting her trial. In February 2011 Judge Kenton-Walker issued an order suppressing her homicide confession, which had clearly been made under incredible duress as shown on the videotapes of the interrogation. Further evidence showed that the baby had a history of respiratory problems and a temperature of 101 the night he died. The case was dropped for lack of evidence.

Bullying Tactics and False Confessions

In the videotaped interviews, the detectives in the case apply relentless pressure on the young mother, essentially bullying her to confess in order to get help for her family. The techniques the detectives use demonstrate the psychological power that police sometimes have over a suspect in a compromised position.

The detectives lie to their suspect about the evidence they have and provide her with only two options, leading Truong to believe her only way out of the situation is to confess.

The Case for Taping Interviews

Investigators sometimes tape only the confession part of the investigation interview, but a taped confession, without the background information on how it came about, is worthless.

One of the best ways to keep investigators accountable for their tactics in the interview room is to videotape the entire interrogation. Some investigators feel that it makes people nervous and less likely to speak openly. Others feel the exact opposite.

However, you feel about the practice, it’s clear that in this case having the entire interview on videotape saved an innocent young woman from a jail sentence for a crime she didn’t commit


Dawn Lomer
Dawn Lomer

Managing Editor

Dawn Lomer is the managing editor at i-Sight Software and a Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE). She writes about topics related to workplace investigations, ethics and compliance, data security and e-discovery, and hosts i-Sight webinars.