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As she voluntarily entered the police interrogation room in Moline, Illinois, four years ago, Dorothy Varallo-Speckeen thought she was there to help solve a child-abuse case.
She soon realized, however, Detective Marcella O’Brien thought she, a then-22-year-old babysitter with no criminal record, had abused the child, a felony punishable by up to 30 years imprisonment.
“I’m not trying to point fingers, but I know for a fact that the injury occurred during the time when you guys were watching Brylee,” O’Brien said, referring to Varallo-Speckeen and her girlfriend and, by name, the baby they were watching.
That statement came early in a video-recorded interrogation obtained by IowaWatch. In the video, O’Brien subjected Varallo-Speckeen to an interrogation that sought to extract a confession. Her tactics are common in law enforcement, but many experts say they can coerce false confessions and should be abandoned.
O’Brien talked over Varallo-Speckeen, interrupted and rejected or cut off denials and repeatedly pushed O’Brien’s theory – that Varallo-Speckeen had broken the legs of the 15-month-old toddler.
Maybe she was too rough changing a diaper, or maybe she accidentally hurt the child, O’Brien suggested time and again. Despite Varallo-Speckeen insistence that she wasn’t too rough, that she didn’t hurt the toddler, that she had not changed the baby’s diaper during the hours in question, O’Brien held to the theory that Varallo-Speckeen was to blame.
After nearly two hours in the interrogation room and after O’Brien once more insisted that Varallo-Speckeen must have caused the injuries, Varallo-Speckeen relented. It happened when Varallo-Speckeen recalled the moment her girlfriend first said the child’s legs were broken.
Varallo-Speckeen: And so then she was like well, her legs are broke, and then I was confused like how, how did that happen. That was my reaction.
O’Brien: OK. So what do you think now?
Varallo-Speckeen: I think it was because I was changing her diaper.
Looking back on that day, July 24, 2013, Varallo-Speckeen now 26, said she believes O’Brien coerced that confession.
The detective and Moline police officials declined several requests for interviews over several months about the case and interrogation practices.
O’Brien’s tactics mirrored the Reid Technique of Interviewing and Interrogation, which researchers describe as the gold standard for interrogating suspects. A majority of law enforcement officials are being trained to use it or another method based on it.
Critics relate the technique to the fact that more than a fourth of wrongfully convicted suspects later exonerated with DNA evidence had given a false confession or incriminating statement, according to the Innocence Project, a non-profit that works to exonerate the wrongly convicted.
Some critics point to policies used in the United Kingdom as an effective and fair alternative. Andy Griffiths, a retired United Kingdom detective superintendent with a doctorate in major crime interviewing, said his country no longer sees cases going to the UK’s appeals court because of false confessions.
But, Joseph Buckley, president of John E. Reid & Associates, stands by the technique, saying it is an ethical and efficient way to obtain justice, and he denies false confessions and the Reid Technique are related.
HOW THE REID TECHNIQUE WORKS
To understand police interrogation techniques, IowaWatch interviewed experts, read police records of the case, analyzed the video and transcript of Varralo-Speckeen’s interrogation and compared it to Reid methods. The video was provided by Sharon Varallo, Varallo-Speckeen’s mother.
Statements heard in the interrogation video indicate that two others and possibly a third were alone with the child during the time in which she was injured.
SERIES OF EVENTS
Varallo-Speckeen had moved from Rock Island to Moline after being adopted at age 11 by Sharon Varallo, a college professor. She had been abused as a child. She and Sharon moved to Iowa City, where she graduated from Iowa City High School, before they returned to the Moline area. She often worked as a babysitter for different families but rarely held a stable, long-term job.
The events in July 2013 that put Varallo-Speckeen in an interrogation room began about two months earlier when she and her girlfriend, Jennifer Schafer, 30, moved into a basement apartment in the home of Schaefer’s friend, Jami Kepple. Kepple’s mother, Kim Linhart, and cousin, Brad Hessell, lived in the apartment upstairs.
On Monday, July 22 at 5 a.m., Kepple took her daughters to the apartment of her mother, Linhart, before leaving for work. Normally Linhart watched her grandchildren, but Hessell, the cousin, said he watched the girls because Linhart was ill.
Around 7:30 a.m., Hessell took the girls downstairs for Varallo-Speckeen and Schafer to watch while he went to work. Hessell told Schafer that Brylee was not feeling well and to give her Tylenol. She slept until 11 a.m., when Schafer changed her diaper.
“When I picked her up to change her diaper, she was real fussy,” Schafer told IowaWatch. “Like every time you moved her, like when I picked up her legs to slide the diaper in and out, she just kind of screamed a little at me; I thought maybe her belly hurt, thought maybe when I pulled her legs up it squished on her belly.”
Later, Schafer took Jasmine, Kepple’s eldest daughter, outside to play, while Brylee and Varallo-Speckeen napped on the couch. When Schafer returned about 45 minutes later, Varallo-Speckeen was awake, but Brylee was still sleeping on Varallo-Speckeen’s chest.
When Kepple returned from work at 1:30, she drove Brylee to Illini Hospital in Silvis, Illinois.
“There was clearly something wrong, but nobody knew what,” Schafer said. “She just wasn’t acting herself.”
Schafer told O’Brien that Kepple said the hospital found nothing seriously wrong with Brylee.
The next day, Tuesday, July 23, both of Brylee’s legs were swollen, and Kepple took her to Trinity East Hospital in Moline, where staff discovered the child’s legs were broken.
Police were called, and Detective O’Brien soon focused on Varallo-Speckeen.
When the Reid Technique was introduced in 1974, it was meant to replace interrogation tactics that involved threats, beatings and even torture. The creator of the technique was a former Chicago detective, John E. Reid, and he had elicited his first confession using it in 1955.
Whether O’Brien had received Reid training could not be determined, because she refused repeated interview requests. However, her tactics followed its technique.
Starting with a “behavioral analysis interview”, investigators are taught to ask non-threatening questions to understand the individual’s demeanor, then decide whether he/she is lying based on verbal and non-verbal cues.
But Reid’s opponents say it is impossible to detect deception accurately.
“You simply cannot tell whether a person is lying or telling the truth based on those cues,” said Stephanie Madon, an Iowa State University psychology professor who researches why individuals confess to crimes they didn’t commit.
The Reid Technique tells interrogators there is not any one cue or response that can determine deception, and that all behavioral cues need to be analyzed.
“But in the course of a high pressure investigation, these are snap judgments being made by detectives, and they’re often wrong,” said Steve Drizin, legal director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, which works to exonerate the wrongfully convicted and reform the justice system.
WHY WOULD A PERSON FALSELY CONFESS TO A CRIME?
Some trained in the technique say the behavioral analysis interview causes tunnel vision.
“You’ve already decided a person is guilty, so now you’re looking for confirmation,” said James Trainum, author of How the Police Generate False Confessions and a former Washington, D.C., homicide detective.
Trainum said he realized this after eliciting the confession of a woman he was sure was guilty in 1994. When evidence proved she could not have committed the murder to which she had admitted, he began to wonder what had gone wrong.
“The truth you are trying to get is the truth you believe in,” Trainum said. Reid, he says, focuses too much on confessions and not enough on gathering information.
“That confession is the most powerful piece of evidence in the court of law, and it ends up corrupting the quest for truth,” Drizin said.
However, Buckley, the Reid and Associates’ president, said the Reid Technique’s core principles are in place to prevent false confessions. To safeguard against false confessions, interrogators should get corroborating details in the suspect’s written statement.
In the interrogation stage, investigators can move through nine steps, starting with directly accusing the suspect of the crime or of knowing something about it.
“So obviously something happened in your care,” O’Brien told Varallo-Speckeen. “Now, do I think it was on purpose? Absolutely not. I don’t think that you guys, or most people are the type of person who intentionally hurt a baby. I think that type of thing would be an evil person who would do that – I mean if you’re going to hurt a baby, you would have to be a very mean, evil person and plan that. I don’t think that was the case. I think what happened was an accident.”
Throughout the interrogation in Varallo-Speckeen case, O’Brien told Varallo-Speckeen she was guilty or knew what happened to Brylee 36 times.
The second step of Reid teaches investigators to develop a theme giving the suspect justification or excuses for committing the crime. Investigators deflect denials by talking over and using gestures to cut the suspect off.
They may try to convince suspects a victim provoked the suspects or try to minimize blame by suggesting the crime was an accident or that the behavior was an anomaly for the suspect.
That tactic leaves suspects with two options: admit to the crime using the given justification or confess without it, leaving the suspect to appear like a monster, Drizin said.
ABOUT THIS REPORT
IowaWatch reporter Krista Johnson spent from the end of August 2016 through part of June 2017 researching and writing this report. She interviewed 14 individuals, talking with some several times. She met with Dorothy Varallo-Speckeen three times, read nearly 100 pages of interrogation transcripts, and watched videos of police interrogations of Varallo-Speckeen and Brad Hessel. She reviewed public records of those involved and previous reporting on the case. An early version of this story had a different spelling of Varallo-Speckeen’s last name because it is spelled incorrectly in law enforcement and court records. Varallo-Speckeen’s mother confirmed the correct spelling.
Johnson also read numerous articles on the Reid Technique and false confession cases and about alternative interrogation methods. She reached out to the detective, state’s attorney office and Moline police chief multiple times for interviews but all declined to be interviewed. She also reached out to Jami Kepple, the child’s mother, for an interview but did not get a response.
Sharon Varallo, Jay Speckeen, Dorothy Varallo-Speckeen, Jennifer Schafer, Jim Trainum, Andy Griffiths, Dean Strang, Steve Drizin, Brent Biggs, Joseph Buckley, Shane Sturman, Brian Farrell, Stephanie Madon and Molly Jansen.
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Either way, “innocence is off the table,” he said.
O’Brien presented Varallo-Speckeen with a variety of accidental ways the injuries could have occurred. It was O’Brien’s suggestion that it could have happened during a diaper change, although Schafer and Varallo-Speckeen told O’Brien Schafer was the only one to change Brylee’s diaper while watching the baby July 22.
When Varallo-Speckeen said she didn’t remember doing anything that could have hurt Brylee, O’Brien cut her off. In the two-hour interrogation, split between Schafer and Varallo-Speckeen, O’Brien interrupted her 71 times.
Reid methodology teaches investigators to share stories about others who have made similar mistakes, a tactic that either minimizes or maximizes the severity of the crime. O’Brien told Varallo-Speckeen about past cases where children had fractured skulls and bleeding on the brain.
“On a scale of things, this is not that severe,” O’Brien said. “Bones heal. Bruises go away. It’s not going to be something that’s going to be a horrible impact for the rest of their life. Unlike when I have babies who are shaken or thrown into walls and they have brain damage. That’s never going to get fixed.”
O’Brien told her repeatedly that Varallo-Speckeen was the only person who had been alone with Brylee, although statements given to O’Brien by Hessell, Schafer and Varallo-Speckeen and viewed by IowaWatch show that is not true. Presenting false evidence is another Reid tactic, made legal by the U.S. Supreme Court case of Frazier v. Cupp.
Interrogation scholars have pushed to change this law, and in other countries it is illegal to lie to a suspect about evidence.
O’Brien told Varallo-Speckeen the two of them could plan a way to tell Schafer and Kepple that would put Varallo-Speckeen in a favorable light, that O’Brien wouldn’t throw Varallo-Speckeen “out to the wolves.”
“I can do that for you,” O’Brien said. “But we can’t help you if you don’t help us. And that’s what I need. I need you to help me, so I can help you with this. Because you don’t want me going back and putting you in unfavorable light to them, do you?”
As the interrogation continued, O’Brien repeatedly insisted that Varallo-Speckeen must have broken Brylee’s legs while changing her diaper.
At one point, O’Brien handed her a baby doll, instructing her to demonstrate how she changed diapers. O’Brien watched as Varallo-Speckeen put a diaper on the doll. But O’Brien didn’t accept her demonstration.
‘That wouldn’t be enough force,” O’Brien said.
“Well, that’s how I change diapers,” Varallo-Speckeen responded.
Nevertheless, the detective continued pressing her theory, and Varallo-Speckeen began to waiver. If O’Brien believed Varallo-Speckeen was guilty, that must be what happened, she told O’Brien, adding she was willing to take the consequences.
Still, the detective was not satisfied; why would Varallo-Speckeen take responsibility for something she didn’t do, O’Brien asked her.
“I just want it over,” Varallo-Speckeen told O’Brien.
In an IowaWatch interview, Varallo-Speckeen said: “I feel like I admitted to a story that I was told.”
“I didn’t think I had, but the way she kept telling me that obviously I had done it, I was like maybe I turned wrong” and rolled over Brylee during their nap. But Varallo-Speckeen said she doubts that, because the child never woke up crying.
“I feel like I just agreed to get it off the table, to just get it out of there, to just get it done,” Varallo-Speckeen said. She said she still doesn’t think she changed Brylee’s diaper.
Varallo-Speckeen was charged with felony aggravated battery against a child. Two years later, she accepted a plea bargain, pleading guilty to misdemeanor battery causing bodily harm.
“I’d rather be guilty of the lesser charge and only have to have one to two years of consequences versus going to trial and chancing six to 30 years, where my life is gone for something I know I didn’t do,” she said.
The month she spent in jail in 2013 was counted toward her sentence, and she remained under court supervision for 12 months.
Varallo-Speckeen says media coverage of the case ruined her reputation, ending her babysitting work and costing her lots of friends.
Following the charges, Brylee’s mother, Kepple, told Schafer in a Facebook message that she didn’t know who hurt her daughter, that she didn’t trust the police and that she just wanted Brylee to be okay. Kepple declined talking to the press then and declined to comment on this story.
Reid critics say other interrogation methods would prevent false confessions and that police need more training in interviewing and interrogating. But Reid’s proponents don’t believe the techniques cause false confessions, nor that other options would help close cases.
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Wicklander-Zulawski & Associates, an Illinois consulting firm that has trained thousands of law enforcement officials nationwide, stopped offering Reid training in 2017.
Shane Sturman, chief executive officer, said Wicklander-Zulawski officials listened to academics, police interrogation researchers and law enforcement officials and decided the non-confrontational methods they have offered since 1983 work just as well.
“It’s not the Reid method that’s the problem as much as the misuse of the Reid Technique,” Sturman said.
“I do not believe that Reid or anyone else teaching intends to elicit a false confession,” Sturman said, but that the confrontational nature of Reid could explain missteps.
Buckley, Reid & Associates’ president, said if a false confession occurs, it is not a matter of misusing the Reid Technique but rather not using it at all.
“When you research false confessions, the majority of them come when officers participate in inappropriate behavior,” Buckley said.
Reid methods say interrogators should treat subjects with respect, not make promises of leniency, threaten physical harm or inevitable consequences, deny their rights or the opportunity to satisfy physical needs.
Former detective Trainum said a three-day seminar typically offered to law enforcement to be certified in the Reid Technique doesn’t fully cover Reid’s textbook. He said it spends considerable time on core principles and false confessions, but the seminars don’t cover the different issues a detective might encounter.
At Iowa Law Enforcement Academy, officers get six hours of interviewing and interrogation training, instructor Molly Jansen said. Any further training would be at local departments, she said.
Davenport Police Chief Brent Biggs said in the past many officers attended Reid seminars, but recently more go to Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers. There, they learn about eliciting admissions, how to address and mitigate denials, countering interviewee questions, and advanced evidence and theme presentation.
Buckley said the Reid textbook can’t be covered in the three-day seminar because it is more than 400 pages long, but that the safeguards and principles are. He said police get on-the-job training by spending more time talking to people than anything else they do.
Reid critics recommend a technique used by officers in the United Kingdom called PEACE, which is similar to the “Participatory Method” that Wicklander-Zulawski uses, Sturman said. It focuses more on gathering information rather than getting confessions.
STEPS TO ‘PEACE’ INTERVIEWING
The PEACE method was developed in the early 1990s through a collaboration of law enforcement experts and psychologists in England and Wales and implemented in response to the UK’s Police and Criminal Evidence Act of 1984.
Before this, Griffiths, the former UK detective, said officers weren’t trained in interviewing and interrogation methods. He said the courts threw out several confessions in the 1970’s because officers were misbehaving and forcing people to confess. The act gave interviewees more rights, including requiring that all interviews of suspects be recorded.
PEACE follows a five-step approach that focuses on asking interviewees for their version of events and determining if that information is reliable. Interrogators do not accuse suspects of guilt.
Now every officer learns PEACE in a five-day seminar, and others take another three-week advanced course. A national standard says only advanced interviewers should interview suspects and victims of rape, murder or kidnapping.
In contrast to PEACE, the Reid interrogator “does all the talking, not the suspect,” Trainum said. “How do you get information if the suspect isn’t talking?”
Buckley, however, contended that PEACE cannot accomplish the goal of solving cases. “They have fewer false confessions, but they also have fewer cases they solve, because they have fewer cases where the deceptive person tells them what they did.”
When asked for supporting data, Buckley did not provide it.
Griffiths rejected Buckley’s contention. Confession rates before and after PEACE are roughly the same, he said, adding that the United Kingdom always has had a smaller case resolution number because plea-bargaining doesn’t exist.
Regardless what causes false confessions, many agree something needs to be done to prevent imprisonment of innocent people.
“We need to have a major change in the culture in law enforcement, unfortunately,” Trainum said. “Our problem is we are so focused on closing cases and locking up criminals, we kind of lost our perspective that our real goal is to gather information that is admissible and reliable and unbiased. Let the evidence take us where it may.”
Varallo-Speckeen said she has several regrets:
“Agreeing to pretend that everyone is a good guy, and it’s all going to work out. I regret talking at all, now.”
HOW THE REID TECHNIQUE WORKS
WHY WOULD A PERSON FALSELY CONFESS TO A CRIME?
STEPS TO ‘PEACE’ INTERVIEWING
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The International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training published the following article in their July 2017 Newsletter. Please feel free to share it with your colleagues.
THERE ARE GOOD INTERROGATIONS AND THERE ARE BAD INTERROGATIONS
by: Joseph Buckley, President, John E. Reid and Associates
Every day we read about law enforcement successfully solving criminal cases by a combination of talking to people; developing forensic evidence; interviewing and, when appropriate, interrogating suspects. In many cases, however, there is limited or no forensic evidence or witness testimony that implicates a specific person as the perpetrator so the investigators have to rely extensively on their interviewing skills to develop investigative information that can lead them to the offender.
Once the investigators make contact with the suspected offender, they will generally conduct a non-accusatory fact finding interview to develop investigative information, such as his activities at the time of the crime; his alibi; his relationship to the victim; his knowledge of the crime scene, etc. If the information developed during this interview and the subsequent investigation indicate the subject’s likely involvement in the commission of the crime, the investigators will initiate an interrogation.
A good interrogation is characterized by the following elements:
• the suspect is treated with decency and respect
• the investigator follows the guidelines established by the courts for a proper interrogation
• the suspect’s rights are honored
• the investigator does not engage in any coercive behavior, such as threatening the suspect or making promises of leniency
• the suspect is afforded an opportunity to satisfy their physical needs
In addition to the above, the investigator must be cognizant of those individuals who may be more susceptible to making a false confession, such as individuals with significant mental and/or psychological disabilities, and juveniles with low social maturity. Consequently, it is imperative that a good investigation and a good interrogation follow a set of Best Practices.
Conduct an interview before any interrogation.
Absent a life-saving circumstance, the investigator should conduct a non-accusatory interview before engaging in any interrogation. During the interview, the investigator can establish rapport with the suspect, assess their credibility, develop investigative information, and establish a behavioral baseline.
Conduct an interrogation only when there is a reasonable belief that the suspect is guilty or withholding relevant information.
The belief that a suspect is guilty of a crime or is withholding relevant information may be based upon investigative information, evidence, or verbal responses to interview questions. The investigator should avoid conducting an accusatory interrogation as a technique to separate innocent from guilty suspects.
Attempt to verify the suspect’s alibi before conducting an interrogation.
The most efficient means to prove a suspect’s innocence is to verify his or her purported alibi. Conversely, when it is determined that the suspect provided a false alibi, this finding offers support for the suspicion of the suspect’s probable involvement in the commission of the crime.
When interrogating a non-custodial suspect, do not deprive the suspect from his freedom to leave the room.
The room should be set up so that the subject’s exit from the interrogation room is not blocked – the investigator’s chair should not be between the suspect’s chair and the
door. The room should not be locked from the inside (requiring a key to open the door), and the room should not be in an area that requires a key or pass code to exit the building. Finally, the investigator should not make verbal statements implying that the suspect is not free to leave the room, e.g., “You’re not going anywhere until we get this clarified!”
Do not conduct excessively long interrogations.
In most instances, if the suspect is still adamantly maintaining his innocence and has not made any incriminating statements or admissions after three to four hours of
interrogation, the interrogation should be re-assessed and most likely terminated.
Exercise extreme caution when interrogating juveniles, suspects with a lower intelligence, or suspects with mental impairments.
This class of suspects is more susceptible to false confessions; and, therefore, the investigator should be cautious in utilizing active persuasion such as discouraging weak denials, overcoming objections, or engaging in deceptive practices. Proper corroboration of a confession will be critical with this group of suspects.
Do not reveal to the suspect all information known about the crime.
A legally admissible confession should include corroboration. One form of corroboration is information only the guilty suspect would know, e.g., the method of entry in a burglary, a memorable statement made to the victim, the denomination of money stolen, the murder weapon that was used, etc. When interviewing a suspect or offering information to the news media, the investigator should carefully guard this protected information so that the only individuals who would know it would be the investigator and the person who committed the crime.
Attempt to elicit information from the suspect about the crime that was unknown to the investigator.
The best form of corroboration is information not known to the investigator about a crime that is independently verified as true. Examples of independent corroboration include the location of a knife used to kill the victim, where stolen property was fenced, or the present location of a car the suspect stole.
The confession is not the end of the investigation.
Following the confession, the investigator should investigate the confession details in an effort to establish the authenticity of the subject’s statement, as well as attempt to establish the suspect’s activities before and after the commission of the crime.
When the above described procedures are followed, the criminal justice system will be well served with a truthful, reliable, and voluntary confession.
Unfortunately, there are occasions when an investigator conducts a “bad” interrogation, which is often characterized by the investigator engaging in coercive behavior, such as threatening the suspect with harm or inevitable consequences (“If you don’t confess you will never see your children again.”); making promises of leniency (“If you tell me you did this you can go home and that will be the end of it.”); ignoring the suspect’s rights (Suspect: “I am done talking, I want an attorney now.” Investigator: “We’ll get to that later. You don’t need an attorney now.”); or, denying the suspect the chance to use the washroom or to get something to drink or eat after an extended period of questioning.
Furthermore, to test the veracity of a suspect’s confession, it is imperative that the suspect provide the investigator with details about the crime that only the guilty person would know. Unfortunately, contrary to the best practices that we described previously, some investigators disclose details about the crime to the suspect so that when the suspect repeats those details in their confession there is no way to demonstrate that the suspect had independent knowledge of those facts, as opposed to simply repeating what he was told.
The courts consistently uphold confessions that were the result of proper interrogation procedures and reject those confessions that were obtained improperly
– that were the result of coercive investigator behavior. Fortunately these are far and few between. Interrogation is a critical part of the search for truth, but it must be conducted properly – it must be a good interrogation.
I am a PhD criminologist of roughly 30 years and have been studying, researching, teaching and training deception in colleges, seminars and law enforcement training programs for 20 of those years. I will simply say this – the Reid technique’s Behavioral Analysis Interview (BAI) which is used to identify a likely guilty party has been repeatedly shown to contain “indicators” proven over and over to not be valid. The BAI is used to then initiate the interrogation based on the conclusions on the invalid set of indicators. Then one of the methods is to refuse to allow the person to deny anything claiming an innocent person would stop the process with adamant refusal to continue. This completely avoids consideration of those who are very polite, fearful of authority, have poor self esteem or have age or cultural variations of behavior that do not fit the Reid method.
There are so many points to raise from Joe Buckley’s reply posted in reponse to Krista Johnson’s article. I will make just two –
1. “The confession is not the end of the investigation.
Following the confession, the investigator should investigate the confession details in an effort to establish the authenticity of the subject’s statement, as well as attempt to establish the suspect’s activities before and after the commission of the crime”
This is not good investigative practise. Placing a confession first raises the dangers of the investigator seeking only evidence that CONFIRMS the confession, rather than objectively investigating the crime. Numerous miscarriages of justice have resulted from this behaviour. There is a vast body of good research that highlights the existence and dangers of confirmation bias.
2 “Interrogation is a critical part of the search for truth, but it must be conducted properly – it must be a good interrogation” Confession focused interrogation by its very nature is not a search for the truth. The Reid technique is about producing admissions and getting the subject to agree with the interrogator as to what happened – – the ‘truth’ in this scenario has already been decided before the interrogation commences.
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