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When Co-Offenders Are Being Interrogated Consider "Playing One Against the Other"

September 2016 (click here for printable version)

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When two or more persons have collaborated in the commission of a criminal offense and are later apprehended for questioning, there is usually a nagging fear on the part of each participant that one of them will "talk." Individually, each of them may feel confident of his own ability to evade detection and to avoid confessing, but they generally do not experience a comparable degree of confidence with regard to the co-offender's ability or even willingness to do so. Uppermost in their minds is the possibility that one of them will confess in an effort to obtain special consideration.

This fear and mutual distrust among co-offenders can be made the basis for the effective interrogation technique of "playing one against the other." Since this tactic involves largely a bluff on the part of the investigator, however, it should be reserved as a last resort, to be used only after other possible tactics have failed to produce the desired result.

There are, in general, two principal methods that may be used in playing one offender against another. The investigator may merely intimate to one offender that the other has confessed, or else the investigator may actually tell the offender so. In either event, there are two basic rules to follow, although they are subject to exceptions: (1) keep the suspects separated from sight and sound of each other and (2) use, as the one to be led to believe the other has confessed, the less criminally hardened, or the follower rather than the leader of the two or more offenders, or the one who acted out the lesser role in the crime--in short, use the one who is likely to be more vulnerable to the ploy. At times, however, the reverse procedure is warranted; perhaps the leader may be the more vulnerable one because of concern that if he does not talk first, he may be left "holding the bag" after the weaker one confesses first. The choice to be made is a judgment call that the investigator must make on the basis of the particular case circumstances.

If the co-offenders seem to be naive--for example, young first offenders unfamiliar with the possibility of interrogation trickery--a simple form of intimation may consist of the practice of taking one suspect into the interview room soon after the interrogation of the first one and then telling him: "This other fellow is trying to straighten himself out; how about you? Or do you want to let this thing stand as it is? I'm not going to tell you what I now know about your part in this job. I don't want to put the words in your mouth and then have you nod your head in agreement. I want to see if you have in you what it takes to tell the truth. I want to hear your story--straight from you own lips." Many are the occasions when this admonition has triggered a confession.

The intimation tactic may be dramatized to add to its effectiveness. Following is an example of this, as it was used at our office. In relating this example, and the others that follow, it is assumed that the Miranda warnings already have been appropriately administered to custodial suspects. Also, although a duplication or approximation of the physical surroundings or circumstances described may not be available in every investigator's situation, what is related illustrates the potential of dramatized intimation. Complexity is not a prerequisite. It may be achieved in a rather simple setting.

An investigation of a burglary clearly indicated that it was committed jointly by two suspects (called A and B here), and both of them were to be interrogated by the same investigator. Both A and B sat in a waiting room with a secretary who was busily typing. The secretary had been coached for her subsequent role.

Suspect A was taken to the interview room, which was adjoined to the waiting room by a door. After no success in interrogating A, except for a reinforced belief that A was guilty, the investigator returned him to the waiting room and then escorted B into the interview room. His interrogation was also nonproductive, except for a reinforcement of the belief that he, too, was guilty. The investigator left B in the interview room and eventually returned to the waiting room alone. There, he instructed the secretary: "Please come in the back with your notebook." This instruction was given within view of A, but in such a natural manner that it did not seem to be an act performed for his benefit. The secretary then departed in the direction of the interview room. After absenting herself for the period of time that would ordinarily be required for the actual taking of a confession, she returned to the waiting room and began typing what seemed to be notes taken during the period of her absence, within the view of A. After several minutes, she paused and inquired of an officer seated near A, "How does the man [referring to A] spell his last name?" (If the name is a simple one, then the inquiry should be directed to his address or some other basic fact.) After receiving the information, she continued with her typing. When finished, she printed the "statement" and departed in the direction of the interview room. Thereafter, she returned to her desk without the papers and assumed her usual secretarial duties.

After a lapse of 15 or 20 minutes, the investigator entered the waiting room and escorted A back into the interview room (now vacated by B, who had been taken to another room). After A was seated, the investigator said: "Well, what have you got to say for yourself?" At this point, A confessed, being under the impression that his co-offender had done so already. Even if A had not immediately confessed, the investigator was not foreclosed from resuming his interrogation of him and, if A had inquired about what B had said, he should have been told, "Never mind what he said, you tell me what happened; I want it from your own lips."

Another kind of intimation that may be employed is illustrated by a case in which a father and son are involved in the commission of a crime, and they have consistently maintained that they were innocent, even when questioned separately. In such a case situation, the investigator may say to the father, "Okay, if you are both telling the truth, as you say you are, here's a piece of paper and a pencil. Write a note to your son; tell him that you have told the truth and that he, too, should tell the truth. You don't have to say anything else." As this is said, the actions and facial expressions of the suspect should be carefully observed. If he delays in responding, or if he equivocates in his answer, this will be further assurance of deception because, if he and his son are telling the truth, there should be no reluctance or unwillingness to write out such a message. The dilemma that is thereby presented to the suspect may result in his writing and signing the message to his son. Then, when the message is presented to the son, his actions, facial expressions, and verbal responses will be of helpful significance. If he is innocent, he will respond, unruffled and with confidence, by saying something to the effect of: "I am telling the truth, and so is my father; I don't know what you're trying to do. Why don't you bring him in here?" If the two are guilty, a confession from the son is apt to be forthcoming. If the son is guilty and confesses, his subsequent written confession can then be shown to the father, or the investigator may have the son orally relate to the father what he has already stated in his signed confession.

For additional examples of "playing one against the other" see Criminal Interrogation and Confessions, 5th edition, 2013.


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