Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Interrogation of Reluctant Witnesses

By Tad DiBiase

I'm not a detective (although my brother is) and I don't play one on TV.  Nonetheless during my career as a prosecutor trying mostly murder cases I not only watched a lot of interviews and interrogations but did quite a few myself.  More than once the detectives on my cases accused me of wanting to be a detective more than wanting to be a prosecutor and to that charge I plead guilty.

Interviews and interrogations are critical to resolving many homicide and violent crime cases.  Often murder cases,  particularly domestic murders and no body murders, either do not have forensic evidence or the forensic evidence is not particularly damning, for example, in a domestic murder, finding the suspect's DNA on the scene may not be very incriminating if the victim and the suspect were in a relationship.  Therefore convincing a reluctant eyewitness to come forward with evidence or testimony or the confession of a suspect may mean the difference between closing a case with an arrest and having a case grow cold. 

My view on interviews of reluctant witnesses and interrogations changed over time.  When I was a junior prosecutor I was all about good cop/bad cop. I was always the bad cop and believed that it was best to confront a liar as such and to pound away on the witness or suspect until he gave it up.  (To be fair, most of the witnesses to DC murders tend not to be school teachers and bus drivers but hardened thugs and drug dealers who were used to being questioned by police and prosecutors.)  

As time went on, however,  I watched more experienced prosecutors and veteran homicide detectives,  I realized that, while playing bad cop was fun, it was often unproductive.  Most witnesses and suspects,  if they did confess,  were more likely to tell the truth if the detective or prosecutor speaking to them established a bond, not hit them over the head with a bat (metaphorically speaking of course).  I thought of this recently as I read of the controversy about the questioning of suspected terror suspects.  Although I  reject the idea that an interrogation of terrorists can only consist of torture or "FBI-style" questioning, I do not reject the idea that interrogations and interviews where the questioner bonds with the subject are generally more successful.  

I am in the middle of reading an excellent book on this very topic, Practical Aspects of Interview and Interrogation by David E. Zulawski and Douglas Wicklander.  (Full disclosure:  The authors sent me this book for free but have not asked me to plug or review it.)    Their book is not easily summarized but in a nutshell they are strong and effective advocates for the bonding type of interview, not the harsh confrontational method used by many police departments (and prosecutors).  

Among the topics they cover in their book are nonverbal clues to behavior, false confessions,  establishing creditability with a subject and using rationalizations to make it easier for a suspect to confession.  Both men are recognized experts in their field and train police officers and private investigators on the methods they believe have the greatest chance of garnering confessions and incriminating testimony.  

Since many cold cases must now rely on witness testimony, every detective would be wise to read this textbook and put its suggestions into play.  Since I know many of you have lost loved ones in cases that remain unsolved, it can never hurt to see if the detective on your case has heard of the book or the methodology.  Detectives often only get one shot at a suspect or key witness and using the wrong method can forever doom the investigation to the realm of a cold case. 

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1 comment:

  1. I'm getting one and sending it to the lead detective on my niece Lacey Gaines case. Thanks for the recommendation!


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