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The Importance of Evaluating Consequences November -December 2014 (click here for printable version)

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During the course of an investigation, and especially at the interview stage, there are a number of questions the investigator would like to answer about the suspect and the crime he may have committed: What was the suspect's motive for committing the crime? Did the suspect work alone or with others? Was the crime planned or spontaneous? One of these questions is, "What consequence does the suspect most fear and how flexible is that consequence in the suspect's mind?"

Why is an investigator interested in evaluating consequences? If the investigator can identify the consequences the suspect most fears, and how flexible that consequence is, this will suggest interrogation approaches to use and others to avoid. In short, information about consequences provides the investigator with insight that will greatly assist in learning the truth from a guilty suspect.

Types of Consequences

Every guilty suspect lies for exactly the same reason - to avoid the consequences of telling the truth. Consequences fall into two broad categories. The first is termed real consequences. These consequences involve loss of freedom, livelihood or physical well-being. Examples of real consequences include spending the next 12 years in prison, losing a job, paying a $10,000 fine or having a loved-one killed if the suspect reveals information to authorities.

Many guilty suspects are not at all worried about real consequences. The primary reason they lie is to avoid personal consequences. Personal consequences involve loss of pride, esteem or ego. The classic case of a suspect facing personal consequences is one who commits suicide during the course of the investigation. This suspect's embarrassment and shame associated with his crime makes death more desirable than public exposure.

Suspects who are most concerned about real consequences often have experienced real consequences in the past, or personally know someone who has, e.g., prior prison time or job terminations. These individuals typically have had frequent contact with law enforcement or authority figures and, other than having a "rep" on the street, do not really care what others think of them. A drug addict is a good example. While the drug addict has little self-esteem he deathly fears incarceration and going through withdrawal. During the interview the suspect may bring up real consequences. For example, when asked what he thinks should happen to the person who committed the crime, the suspect may respond, "I'm sure he'll lose his job."

On the other hand, suspects who are most concerned with personal consequences often perceive themselves as successful, well liked or responsible. For example, they may have family and friends who depend on them for financial and emotional support; they may attend church regularly or be active in the community. Being sent to prison or being unemployed is not foremost in their mind but they are very worried about their self-image. Common crimes associated with personal consequences are embezzlement, child sexual abuse, and other sexual crimes such as voyeurism. During the interview the suspect may bring up personal consequences. For example, when asked why they would not embezzle funds from the company the suspect may respond, "Because I'm too well respected in the company."

Flexibility of Consequences

In addition to identifying the type of consequence the guilty suspect most fears, it is useful to identify how flexible the consequence is in the suspect's mind. Most guilty suspects have flexible consequences. Even though these suspects are fully aware that they committed a crime, they are in denial when it comes to accepting serious consequences for their crime. These suspects believe that they have some control over what will happen to them if they are caught and that they have the ability to escape significant consequences. The reason for this is that most guilty suspects have justified their crime in some manner and consequently believe they deserve leniency. These individuals buy into the notion propagated by television shows that if a criminal confesses and cooperates with the police that they will be afforded leniency.

Other suspects perceive consequences as inflexible. In their mind they are absolutely convinced that if their guilt is determined they will experience the feared consequence. Some suspects who have inflexible consequences have been threatened with inevitable consequences. For example, the wife who tells her husband, "If you had sexual contact with our daughter I'm divorcing you", or the judge who tells a defendant, "If you are ever in my courtroom again I'm throwing the book at you!" Others are simply realistic in assessing their situation and accept the fact that they will likely face consequences.

The following circumstances are associated with suspects who form inflexible consequences:

The suspect being threatened with consequences by an employer, judge, investigator or loved one;
The suspect who has previously served time in prison;
The suspect who is eligible for the "three strikes" law, and knows it.

A suspect may reveal how flexible perceived consequences are when responding to interview questions. The following responses would be typical of a suspect with inflexible consequences:
I: "What do you think should happen to the person who did this?"
S: "I'm sure he'll go to prison."
I: "Under any circumstances do you think the person who did this deserves a second chance?"
S: "I was told whoever did this is going to be fired."
I: "What was your wife's reaction when she found out about the interview today?"
S: "She told me if I did this not to bother coming home."

On the other hand, the following responses are typical of a guilty suspect who has flexible consequences:

I: "Have you ever thought about (committing crime)?"
S: "Well sure, who hasn't? But that doesn't mean I'd do it."
I: "What do you think should happen to the person who did this?"
S: "I don't really know. I think maybe apologize and promise not to do it again."
I: "Under any circumstances, do you think the person who did this deserves a second chance?"
S: "I think everyone deserves a second chance."

Using This Information During and Interrogation

There are two important principles regarding the suspect's perceived consequences. The first is that it is easier to elicit the truth from a suspect who has flexible than inflexible consequences. It must be remembered that the psychological goal of interrogation is to legally persuade the guilty suspect that he will benefit in some manner by telling the truth. Obviously, this is much easier to accomplish when the suspect enters the interrogation already believing that consequences are flexible. Obviously, the investigator does not want to do or say anything during an interrogation that would cause the suspect to believe consequences are inflexible, e.g., "Buddy you're going away for a long time. Don't kid yourself by thinking that you're going to get some sort of break - you don't deserve it!"

The second principle is that, based on our experience, it is more difficult to persuade a suspect to tell the truth who is more concerned with personal consequences than with real consequences. The reason for this may be that personal consequences affect the suspect immediately whereas real consequences occur at some point in the future, following the confession. In other words as soon as the suspect facing personal consequences confesses he will experience the shame and embarrassment associated with his crime. However, the suspect who is most concerned with real consequences must still go through a trial to determine his fate; the suspect worried about termination has time to adjust to the possibility of being unemployed, etc. This period of adjustment, or perhaps period of hope, makes it easier for the suspect to tell the truth.

A second factor contributing to this observation is that real consequences are usually finite. At some point the suspect will be released from prison; eventually the suspect will find another job or girlfriend. However, the loss of esteem or ego associated with personal consequences is perceived as permanent by the suspect.

In summary, the easiest suspect to learn the truth from is one with real, flexible consequences. Conversely, the most difficult suspects to interrogate have inflexible personal consequences. With this in mind, the following suggestions are offered when interrogating suspects relative to their perceived consequences:

1. Suspects most concerned with real consequences want to make certain that they actually will be found guilty before they accept their punishment. Consequently, the investigator should be prepared to respond to denials and discuss (real or fictitious) evidence of the suspect's guilt. The investigator should appeal to the logic of telling the truth in the interest of fairness in making a decision, i.e., "If this is just the first time you've done something like this you need to let people know -- You don't want to be punished for something you didn't do."

2. Suspects most concerned with personal consequences do not respond well to an aggressive and threatening interrogation approach (they are likely to withdraw and ask for an attorney). An emotional, understanding approach should be used where the focus centers on the suspect's redeeming qualities. The incentive to tell the truth is to not let down loved ones or co-workers, i.e., "Did you do this for selfish reasons or to help out your family? Did you show her your penis to frighten her or because you care for her?"

3. Suspects with flexible consequences will respond well to standard interrogation themes. These individuals have already justified their crime and all the investigator needs to do is reinforce those existing justifications. Because these individuals believe they should not be severely punished, they are not strongly motivated to challenge the investigator's presentation of real or fictitious evidence during the interrogation. However, for the same reason, these individuals will respond negatively to perceived threats, e.g., "You are a monster and need to be put in a place where you will never hurt anyone again!" To do so only serves to make the suspect's perceived consequences less flexible.

Suspects with inflexible consequences are the most difficult to interrogate. The investigator should put off the interrogation until actual evidence of the suspect's guilt can be presented during the interrogation. While our general recommendation is to avoid discussing consequences during an interrogation, this is an exception. To persuade this suspect to tell the truth the investigator may have to directly address the consequence the suspect is facing. The following is an example of a statement designed to persuade a suspect that consequences are flexible: 1

"Joe, it is important for you to understand that I don't have any control over what may happen to you. I'm just an investigator who turns over my results to someone else to act on. But I can tell you this. I have investigated two people who have done exactly the same wrong thing and, depending on circumstances, different things have happened to them. When I leave this room the first thing my boss is going to ask me is why did you do this. I would like to be able to tell him (present theme)"

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