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Using Open-ended Questions During the Investigative Interview (Part 2)

May / June 2017 (click here for printable version)

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(See the March April 2017 Investigator Tip for Part 1)

Evaluating the Response to an Open Question

When relating an incident such as being the victim of a robbery or sexual assault, the truthful account almost always contains three parts. The account will start off with an introduction that sets the stage for the main incident. The second portion will be the incident itself, and the final stage will be an epilogue where the subject explains what he did after the incident or how the incident affected him emotionally. In a truthful account, the subject’s actions, thoughts, and behaviors resulting from the incident become just as significant as the behavioral components. The following account of a car-jacking is typical of a truthful account.
Well, I was on my way to pick up my two children, Dave and Laura, from preschool. I got off work at about 6:15 and I had to pick them up over on Lake Avenue before 7:00. Rush-hour traffic was pretty bad and I was afraid I might be late. I was late picking the kids up last Tuesday and the teacher gave me a hard time about it so I decided to take a short cut through the neighborhood off of Lombard. [Introduction]

I was distracted by the time and wasn’t really thinking too much about where I was. At any rate, I was stopped at a red light on Lombard and St. Paul and the car behind me bumped me. I was sort of startled, but it was just a bump and I didn’t think there would be any damage. When I turned around I saw this guy approach my window so I opened the door to talk with him. He told me there was damage to the back of my car so I got out of my car to see the damage. He grabbed me over here by the shoulder and said, “Take a hike,” and pushed me away. He got into my car and did a U-turn going down St. Paul Drive the other direction. He squealed the tires and I had to jump out of the way. The car that bumped me then did the same thing. [Main Event]

This whole thing happened in just a matter of seconds. I feel like such a fool because I’ve read about car-jackings but I didn’t think it would ever happen to me, you know. I wasn’t physically hurt but was sort of in a daze and here I was in the middle of an unfamiliar neighborhood. I wasn’t sure what to do. I walked to a Walgreens down the block and they had a pay phone where I called the police and then the day care center. The teacher agreed to wait for me and after I talked to the police I called a taxi and went and picked them up. And that’s everything. [Epilogue].
A fabricated account often does not contain these three segments. The deceptive subject, who does not want to lie unnecessarily, may provide an introduction and a main event but offer a sketchy epilogue or skip the epilogue altogether. It is also suspicious when the amount of detail varies from one segment to the next. For example, if a victim spends 90% of the response offering a detailed explanation of the introduction and then glosses over the main event, this would be suspicious. Contrast the earlier truthful response to this fabricated statement:
Well, I was on my way to pick up my children from day care and decided to take a short cut off of Lombard down to St. Paul. As you know that’s a pretty bad neighborhood and when I was stopped at a light I thought I felt a jolt like someone hit me from behind and this guy comes out and grabs me and pulls me out of the car and jumps in and drives away. It all happened so fast I didn’t get a good look at him. That’s pretty much everything.
Indications of Truthfulness

In addition to evaluating segments of a subject’s response to an initial open question, the investigator should listen for the following indications of truthfulness.

Similar detail throughout the account. Depending on the significance and recency of the event, along with a person’s background, education, and communication skills, some individuals will include much more detail within an account than others. However, if the account is factual, there should be similar detail throughout the account.

Out of sequence information. Memories are not stored in real time, the way a video camera records images. Rather, we have primary memories that may then stimulate secondary memories. These less important memories may occur to the subject out of sequence within the account. The fact that the subject includes out of sequence information offers support for the statement being derived from factual recall. In the first account of the previous car-jacking incident, the statement about being late picking the kids up last Tuesday is out of sequence. The subject decided to include the information in her account because it was factual; guilty suspects typically do not lie unnecessarily during a response to the investigator’s question.

Expressions of thoughts and emotions. When relating a traumatic incident it is suspicious if the suspect does not include thoughts or emotional states because, psychologically, they are linked so closely with behaviors. The truthful account of the car-jacking incident includes a number of such thoughts including, “I didn’t think there would be any damage,” “I felt like a fool,” and “I was sort of in a daze.”

Indications of Deception

Conversely, when evaluating segments of a subject’s response to an initial open question, the investigator should listen for the following indications of deception.

Varying levels of detail. The investigator should be suspicious that an account may be deceptive if it contains a great deal of detail leading up to the main incident but the description of the main incident lacks this level of detail. Similarly, if the introduction and epilogue are sketchy but the subject offers a very detailed main event, this should be viewed suspiciously as well.

Perfect chronology within the account. An account that goes from A to Z without ever skipping back in time is somewhat suspicious. This may be an indication that the account is rehearsed or is being generated spontaneously, as the subject makes up the story as it is being told. The absence of out-of-sequence information suggests that the subject is not relying on normal patterns of recall. A truthful account that has been retold many times, however, may be chronological.

The absence of thoughts or emotions. Deceptive accounts frequently are focused entirely on behaviors: what happened, when it happened, how it happened, what was said, and so on. Because the account is fabricated, these reported behaviors occur in isolation from the normal process of experiencing thoughts or emotions. In a case involving a fabricated robbery the subject was asked, “What was your reaction when you saw the man approach your vehicle?” His response was that he moved the money bags to one side. The investigator again attempted to elicit the subject’s thoughts or emotions by asking, “What were your thoughts when he approached you?” to which the subject responded, “I just stepped on the brake and moved the bags.” At no time did the subject state that he was afraid or had thoughts of being hurt or killed. During an interrogation following this interview the subject admitted stealing the money himself and making up the story about being robbed.

Phrases indicating a time gap. There are key phrases to listen for during an open account that indicate that the subject has consciously edited information from the account. Examples of these phrases include, “The next thing I remember. . . ,” “Before I knew it. . . ,” and “Eventually. . . .” The following are two victim statements that contain time gap phrases. In both examples, clearly the “victim” has edited information leading up to the main event.
Example 1: I got up from my chair and went into his house. When I came back outside he had spread a blanket on the ground and he asked me to join him. I sat down on a corner of the blanket and the next thing I recall is being on my back with my clothes up around my neck and him fondling me.

Example 2: I asked the officer why we were stopped and he told me that if I say one more word he was going to kick my [expletive]. I said I was sorry and I was just asking. The next thing I knew, I was on the ground getting kicked.
In both of these accounts, common sense reveals that the precipitations for these attacks were omitted from the narrative. This does not necessarily mean that these are fabricated accounts, but rather that the victim chose not to include the events immediately leading up to the alleged sexual assault or police beating. This omission may have been because of embarrassment or shame, which may indicate possible truthfulness, or perhaps because the victim was responsible for the action, which may negate the claim. The point is, time gap phrases help direct the investigator’s attention to a portion of an account that requires clarification.

# Implied action phrases. Deceptive subjects rely extensively on the investigator making assumptions about what probably happened. A good rule to follow is that if the subject did not specifically state that something happened, the investigator should not assume that it did. Key phrases associated with implied actions include, “I thought about. . . ,” “He started to. . . ,” He began. . . ,” and “I wanted to. . . .” In one case our office investigated, a 16-year-old student claimed that she was raped in a bathroom stall at her high school. When responding to the initial open question she stated, “And he starts to threaten me and tells me that if I scream or didn’t cooperate he will hurt or kill me.” Later during her response she stated, “And he starts pushing me up against the back of the stall so I was, kind of, you know pinned in.” Of significance is that the student never said that the man actually made these statements or pushed her up against the back of the stall. Rather, she said that he “starts” to engage in these behaviors. Also of significance in this account is that the victim is using present tense verbs yet talking about something that should have occurred in the past. Following an interrogation, this subject confessed to entirely making up the rape story to explain her absence from class.

Clarifying the Open Account

Once the subject has completed his response to the initial open question, the investigator should go back and ask clarifying questions. The following list can be used as a guide to help direct the interviewer to those areas that require further clarification:

  1. sketchy details
  2. illogical or unexplained behavior
  3. time gap phrases
  4. implied action phrases
  5. people not identified (We went to the mall.)
  6. conversations (I was on the phone for a while.)
  7. qualifying phrases (I believe, I think, As I recall)


Clarifying questions are open-ended questions that can be divided into three categories: (1) questions that elicit more information, (2) questions that seek an explanation for events, and (3) questions that develop information about the subject’s feelings or thoughts.

The first category of questions is designed to elicit further information within a section of the subject’s account. For example:

  • Please tell me more about the man who approached your car.
  • Please describe the vehicle that hit you.
  • What did you do after they drove away?
  • Tell me more about the movie.


The second category of clarifying questions seeks an explanation for events. For example:

  • Could you explain more fully why you were in that neighborhood?
  • Why did you initially get out of the car?
  • Why did you decide to go to that movie?
  • Why did you wait for three days to report this?


The final category of clarifying questions develops information about the subject’s feelings or thoughts. For example:

  • What was your first reaction when you saw the man approach you?
  • How do you feel toward the man who stole your car?
  • With whom have you discussed this incident?


After the investigator has asked a series of clarifying questions and the subject has volunteered all the information that he is going to, the investigator should ask direct questions to develop details of the event or situation that were not included in the subject’s response to open questions.

(For more information on topics along these lines, such as asking direct questions and follow-up questions see Criminal Interrogation and Confessions, 5th edition, 2013)

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