People can be prompted, tricked or coerced into saying nearly anything, including the words that lead to their own conviction and incarceration.
That was the takeaway message from Jim Trainum, a retired Washington, D.C. police detective who spoke to Catholic University law school students on Nov. 5 at the invitation of the Innocence Project and Clemency Project Clinic.
Trainum’s slide presentation, “False Confessions and Wrongful Convictions,” was based on many years of personal experience observing and questioning suspects in custody. It’s far more common than people realize, said Trainum, for nervous or intimidated suspects to blurt out confessions to crimes they did not commit. Nearly 25 percent of such confessions are later discounted by DNA evidence, the former detective confided.
Often, the wrong suspect is arrested in the first place, simply because they look funny, or strike others as weird, regardless of the lack of evidence tying them to a crime.
“Our suspect pool is often the most vulnerable members of our society,” said Trainum.
To complicate the picture, law enforcement officials have been encouraged to buy into faddish theories that claim to yield 100 percent reliable confessions. The Behavioral Analysis Interview, for example, was widely used across the nation and relied upon a 17-question method, supplemented by reading body language, that its inventors claimed invariably led investigators to the truth.
Trainum dismissed it as “100 percent pseudo-science.”
Another interrogatory method, the Reid Technique, asks investigators to follow nine procedural steps that lead to discovering the truth, if not necessarily a confession.
Trainum said such over reliance on psychological playbooks poses a danger to the goal of fairness and justice for people only suspected of committing a crime.
For example, “A lot of times, we will misinterpret a mental health issue as an issue of guilt,” he noted.
Trainum said the best frame of mind for crime investigators to be in when questioning a suspect is not to set verbal traps or read too much in an eye tic, but simply to keep an open mind.