When a suspect denies involvement at the onset of an interrogation, it will be extremely difficult to persuade them to change their mind. The individual has essentially taken a position and now will go to great lengths to defend it even in the face of incontrovertible proof of their guilt. Therefore, we recommend avoiding any type of accusation in the beginning of the interrogation as it typically forces a person to deny and then protect their position with additional denials.
By using a nonconfrontational approach, the investigator can search for the truth, avoid denials, and enhance the possibility of obtaining incriminating admissions. In addition, this nonconfrontational approach allows the investigator an opportunity to enhance the power of their evidence by having the suspect lie about it. At worst, this strategy has seriously put to question the suspect’s truthfulness as they boldly lie about evidence or circumstances established in the investigation.
In the United States, public law enforcement obtains an admission or a confession at a rate that falls somewhere between 40 percent and 65 percent, according to reports in the UCLA Law Review (vol. 43) by Paul Cassell and Bret Hayman and the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (vol. 86) by Richard Leo in 1996. Other studies from around the globe range in the same general percentages. Law enforcement officers in the public sector are much more focused on interviewing than following a standardized interrogation protocol. As a result, a strong skill set in interrogation is not monitored or measured by their organizations.
In the private sector, it’s not unusual for admission or confession rate to range from 70 percent to 90 percent. There could be several reasons for this. First, the private sector primarily deals with fraud and property crimes, which are considered less severe than crimes against persons. Second, the private sector is largely committed to the use of a nonconfrontational style of interrogation that doesn’t require the person to deny anything at its onset. Third, companies often monitor and measure their investigators’ performance focusing on the proper strategy and use of a nonconfrontational style of interrogation. Finally, many organizations by policy only speak with employees whose guilt has been clearly established. However, it should be noted that the nonconfrontational approach we advocate does not require any evidence be revealed to the subject. The use of a participatory interview prior to the nonconfrontational approach allows the investigator to offer the subject an opportunity to explain away seemingly damning evidence revealed in the investigation and help prove his innocence or guilt.
In our research, we have found that most suspects confessed for one of three reasons. First, they believed there was evidence of their guilt. Second, they wanted to put a positive spin on an otherwise bad situation by rationalizing what they had done. And third, they felt guilty about what they had done. Effectively, about 70 percent of the people who confess are trying to protect their self-image by rationalizing their actions. It seems that any investigator who fails to offer face-saving devices and show understanding to the individual is encouraging denials and lessening the likelihood that the guilty give an admission. In our experience, the words and strategies used by the investigator cause most denials.
When a subject has lied about evidence revealed by the investigation, it provides the investigator a strong level of concern that the individual may be guilty. The strength of the evidence against the individual plus their lies indicate a strong presumption of guilt. Locking the individual into an alibi, story, or sequence of events makes the presentation of evidence more powerful since the subject has lied directly to the investigator.
In an interview with a strong presumption of guilt, we should consider the most common ways individuals deny and the strategies they employ. In some situations, a denial of innocence may be made by individuals who don’t understand the elements of the crime. In other instances, a denial may be forthcoming because the person has been labeled as a “thief,” “sexual deviant,” or other term that does not fit their perception of the incident. In our experience, directly accusing using a label often has the effect of strengthening the denials, making a more difficult conversation.
An investigator will face two unique styles of denials during an interrogation. Although both denial styles include refusal to acknowledge involvement, they are dramatically different in how they occur and how they must be handled.
Emphatic denial is any response (verbal or physical) from a suspect that refuses to acknowledge the truthfulness of the accusation. Generally, the individual does not offer an alternative explanation for the situation and simply answers with the emphatic denial: “I didn’t do it,” “You’re wrong; it wasn’t me,” or simply shaking their head (nonverbal response).
On occasion, when an individual’s presence at the scene can be established, they may use a slightly different emphatic denial: “I didn’t see anything.” This emphatic denial is slightly different in that while acknowledging their presence at the location, they deny that they saw or heard anything relevant. This type of denial is used by those who don’t want to admit collusion or do want to protect another from being implicated. This denial reduces the discomfort an individual feels when lying and provides a simple “I don’t know” answer since they missed observing the incident. Related to this type of denial is any statement that blames intoxication, sleeping, or drug use for their inability to recall what happened.
This form of the emphatic denial may also be used by the individual to draw out information from the investigation. Since the subject doesn’t know what the investigation has revealed, they may use this strategy to force the investigator’s hand in revealing evidence. If the investigator chooses to give up evidence at this point, they may reveal much about what the investigation has discovered or suspected.
Another strategic use of an emphatic denial by a guilty subject is to deny any knowledge of the situation. This effectively allows them to avoid any question simply by saying they weren’t there and don’t know anything about the event. This type of statement could also be made by a truthful person who legitimately knows nothing of the incident. However, it is especially indicative of deception if there is evidence linking the person to the situation while they claim no knowledge.
Another attempt to reduce the cognitive dissonance of lying is the use of a specific denial. The emphatic denial is attached to a specific statement that makes it now a true statement. “I didn’t choke her with that rope.” In this statement, the individual is not denying choking the victim, but rather denying using the rope to choke her. This type of denial is often triggered by an investigator who has misinterpreted the crime scene and made some statement to the offender that is not correct.
Explanatory denial is any response from a suspect that offers an excuse or a reason why they could not or would not be involved in the incident, such as, “My mom and dad didn’t raise me that way,” “My father’s a policeman,” or “I would’ve thought of a much better way to do it.” Explanatory denials are usually truthful statements made by an individual to take the offense during an interrogation. Because of their truthful nature, these statements are difficult for an investigator to overcome. “I love my wife.” Obviously, love is a very difficult and variable emotion. Love can be expressed in many different ways, so it provides the subject an easy defense against the investigator’s accusations.
A variation of the explanatory denial is when the subject acknowledges some aspect of the incident but alleges their actions were misinterpreted.
Subject: “I was just jogging down the street when these two guys grabbed me and accused me of stealing from cars.”
Interviewer: “Why were you running?”
Subject: “I was trying to catch the train into the city.”
Interviewer: “It’s got to be three miles to the train station from there.”
Subject: “Yeah, I wanted to get there as quick as possible.”
Interviewer: “So why would these guys grab you?”
Subject: “I don’t know.”
In this exchange the subject maintains their innocence while claiming people have misjudged their actions. This type of tactic is used in a variety of situations by individuals attempting to explain away evidence or witness testimony.
Interviewer: “The witness said it looked like you had your hand on her bottom.”
Subject: “I didn’t. Maybe it was just like an optical illusion from where she was standing.”
Just because a subject denies or uses an explanatory denial does not necessarily mean that they are guilty or deceptive. Innocent people can also use these tactics. However, emphatic denials and explanatory denials and their variations should be examined in the context of the investigation, against evidence available and the individual’s normal behavioral patterns to determine if these are areas of concern.