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Selling a suspect on the benefits of confessing

Provided By John E. Reid & Associates

As a general guideline, an investigator should not address consequences during an interrogation. In fact, the investigator goes to great length to avoid discussing any possible consequences the suspect faces if he or she decides to tell the truth. After all, it is precisely because of those consequences that the suspect is lying. However, there are occasions where it may be appropriate or even necessary to discuss possible consequences with a suspect. Obviously the focus of this discussion should not be on the severity of consequences, but rather on the possible benefits of consequences.

So what possible benefits can the investigator offer a suspect who is facing a fifteen year prison sentence or the loss of a $120,000 annual salary? Pat McCarthy, who teaches a three day course on street crime investigations, is a master at making a lengthy prison sentence sound like a stay in a five star hotel. His tactic at selling the benefits of prison resembles the following:

"Tim, I'm not going to lie to you and tell you that you're going to walk on this one. If you are found guilty you're probably going to end up doing some time. But some good can come from this. For one thing, you can get your GED and other technical training so you'll be able to get a decent job, maybe pulling down $60 or $70 grand a year. Then you won't even be tempted to fool around with selling drugs or gang activity anymore. You'll get free dental and health care so you can get your teeth fixed and get regular checkups so you can stay healthy. You won't have any monthly bills to pay; you won't have to shop for food, cook meals or even do dishes. Plus, you'll get free cable and internet!"

After hearing his "prison spiel", suspects ask Pat where they can sign up. Especially when a suspect is debating whether or not to tell the truth (Step Six in the Reid Technique), it may be very persuasive for the investigator to introduce the possible benefits of confessing. Examples of other benefits of confessing include:

1. Embezzlement:

"Sally some good can come from this. Because this happened, the company now knows that they need better controls and need more frequent audits so other honest employees won't be tempted to do the same thing you did. If someone else had found these problems earlier, I'm sure you never would have done this."

2. Treatment for an addiction:

"George, If you think back on why this thing happened, and you were completely honest about it, you would have to acknowledge that it really boils down to the fact that you do not have control over your (gambling, drinking, drug use, sexual urges). What that means is that there is something happening in your brain that you cannot control. Because of this abnormal brain activity you did something you normally would not have done. There are advances being made every day in treatment programs. George, some good can come from this. The state has treatment programs that you can take advantage of so you will no longer be tempted to (engage in criminal behavior). I could give you dozens of examples of people who did something wrong because of the same problem you have. Because they expressed a willingness to cooperate and get the matter resolved, they were able to get into a treatment program and almost all of them were able to turn their life around. But the first step is to tell the truth."

3. Juvenile interrogations:

"Johnny, it's really fortunate that you got caught this early. Right now we're just looking at taking someone's car. But if you don't get this resolved you're going to go out and do more serious things in the future, like breaking into homes. During one of those burglaries you're going to steal a gun and use it to rob someone. During a robbery either you're going to shoot the clerk or a clerk or cop is going to shoot you. If you play this thing out, your future consists of two options. Either you're going to end up in the morgue with a tag tied around your big toe or I'll be talking to you about murder and you'll be looking at spending the rest of your life behind bars. Right now we're just looking at taking someone's car. Either you can learn from what you did and promise me that you will not get involved in further criminal behavior or you can play the tough guy and sit in that chair and continue to tell me that you didn't do it. The choice is yours. If you want to turn your life around I want a promise from you right now that you will stop taking things that don't belong to you. Can you make me that promise?"

4. Theft interrogation:

"Mary, lets look at this thing practically. What the company wants is to have their money back. I'm sure you needed this money for something important and no one expects you to be able to pay it back all at once but it will be important for them to know that you are sorry about what you did and that you are willing to work with them to reimburse these funds. I mean, if you're not even willing to pay this money back that tells me you're simply a dishonest person and I'm just wasting my time talking to you. You are willing to eventually pay them back, aren't you?"

Legal Caution

One of the reasons we teach not to bring up consequences during an interrogation is because once the investigator mentions treatment for a drug problem, counseling, or a willingness to reimburse stolen funds it opens the door to an allegation that the investigator transmitted a promise of leniency to the suspect. In fact, some courts have prohibited statements that even imply a promise of leniency such as telling a suspect, "I would like to help you out on this thing," or, "The best thing you can do is tell the truth."

When discussing the possible benefits of telling the truth, it is imperative that the investigator never suggest or imply that a suspect may avoid punitive consequences if he or she agrees to receive counseling, treatment for their addiction, or reimburse stolen funds. These incentives can be mentioned as a possible future benefit to telling the truth, but not in lieu of incarceration or job termination.

Especially in light of the trend toward electronic recording of interrogations, investigators need to protect themselves against claims of implying a promise of leniency. An effective technique to accomplish this is by incorporating a prophylactic statement within an interrogation theme. This is simply a statement that removes any doubt as to the fact that the investigator is not offering a promise of leniency, as the following dialogue illustrates:

"Larry, if you did this because you got hooked on some sort of drug, that would be darn important for people to know. When someone takes money to feed a drug habit that's a lot different than a dishonest person who steals money and blows it on a fancy car or a vacation to the Bahamas. If this happened because you needed money to buy cocaine or heroin I want to be able to include that in my report so people understand that this is something that can be fixed. I mean, I've talked to dozens of people who were hooked on a drug and were able to get into treatment and completely turn their life around. That's what I want to see happen to you. Now don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that if you get treatment nothing else will happen to you. I don't have any control over what happens to the people I investigate. But what I am saying is that we need to focus on the positives here. One positive is that you can get your drug problem treated which will allow you to get on with your life."


An investigator certainly does not have the authority to offer the suspect any sort of plea bargain or other promise of leniency in exchange for a confession. However, it is permissible to make truthful statements to a suspect during an interrogation. An investigator is not lying when he tells the suspect that he can receive counseling and therapy in prison; it is an accurate representation when the investigator says that the suspect will not have to pay room or board while in prison and it is a fact that stolen money can be reimbursed.

It is a basic principle of persuasion to focus on the positive aspects of an argument. During an interrogation, however, the investigator must be careful that the proposed benefits of confessing do not cross the legal line of transmitting an implied promise of leniency. Therefore, we would recommend that when an investigator discusses the possible benefits of telling the truth, a concluding prophylactic statement should be made which clearly tells the suspect that the investigator is not offering a promise of leniency and that the investigator does not have control over what may happen to the suspect.



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