Murder: Anatomy of interrogation theme selection and development

By Louis Senese

In the Reid Nine Steps of Interrogation the most important step in the process is Theme Development. In developing the theme the investigator presents the suspect with some type of moral justification for the suspect's criminal behavior. One of the most effective means of presenting this justification to the suspect is to place the moral blame for his actions on some other person or some outside set of circumstances. This procedure is founded on a very basic aspect of human nature — most people tend to minimize their responsibility for their actions by placing blame upon someone or something else. The following is an example of the application of this process.

Drew killed Kate, his wife of 7 years. Kate had become unfaithful in a rapidly deteriorating marriage that produced a 5-year old son who Drew adored.

On the fatal night Kate returned home from work extremely late – actually 2:00 a.m. the next morning. These late nights had become the rule rather than the exception. Inebriated and obviously lying about her whereabouts, she and Drew got into an argument about her condition, where she had been, and what she had been doing. At one point during the heated quarrel Kate threatened to divorce Drew. She told him she would ruin his life by taking the house, demanding alimony and taking custody of their only child. This final threat about their child was the catalyst for the argument to become physical, resulting in her death. In an attempt to silence Kate, Drew squeezed her throat until she went limp. He placed her lifeless body into her car, drove it about one mile from their home, leaving it to appear as though she was the victim of a crime. The following morning he called the authorities reporting that his wife was missing.

Her body was discovered that morning and the subsequent autopsy identified strangulation as the cause of death. Her purse containing cash, credit cards, identification and cell phone was found intact in the car. There were no signs of sexual assault or apparent struggle in the car. It was later discovered that she was at a male co-worker’s house until 2:00 a.m. When questioned, the co-worker informed the authorities that Kate’s intent was to end her marriage and get even with Drew by not allowing him custody of their son. One of their neighbors reported to the police that he thought he saw Kate drive into her driveway around 2:00 a.m. that morning, contradicting Drew’s statement that she had not returned home.

The primary motives in homicide are passion, greed, envy, revenge, anger and identification. In this investigation the primary motive would be passion, with anger and revenge also being factors in the equation. Drew loved his wife and did not want her to leave him and have a stranger raise his son (passion). At the same time he was distraught over her constant cheating and lying (anger), and wanted to get even with her for what she had put him through (revenge).

Most suspects rationalize and justify their illegal behavior. Drew rationalized killing Kate by shifting the blame for his actions to her cheating, lying, threatening divorce and taking custody of their child. Themes by design validate the suspect’s behavior by reiterating the reasons and excuses why they committed the crime, thereby serving to morally, not legally justify the crime. Additionally, themes minimize the suspect’s behavior so as to lessen their perception of the consequences. This process does not relieve the suspect of legal responsibility for his actions but rather allows the suspect to save face and dignity regarding his actions, making it easier to tell the truth about what he did.

Some investigators make the mistake during an interrogation of not selecting and developing themes but rather simply ask the suspect to explain why he/she committed the crime. For most suspects it is too difficult to explain why they committed the crime. It is the interrogator’s job to suggest to the suspect why he/she may have committed the crime.

Another pitfall to avoid in the development of the interrogation theme is the use of realistic words during the interrogation. “Tell us why you strangled or murdered your wife.” Less graphic words or phrases, such as, “…caused the death of Kate” should be used during theme development because they tend to further minimize the moral seriousness or uniqueness of the act.

The primary question to ask in selecting the most appropriate themes is, ‘Why did the suspect commit the crime?’ In other words, what was or were the motive(s)? Understandably, with some crimes the investigator may not be able to determine motive and must therefore use a more general approach to theme selection. In those situations, the interrogation process may be lengthier as the interrogator attempts a variety of themes as he searches for those that are the most suitable.

Theme selection in Drew’s case should focus on passion as being the primary motive. It is not necessary to be concerned about transitioning from one theme to another as they are closely related. Most themes contain an element of truth regarding the suspect’s rationalization or justification for committing the act. The most appropriate themes to select in this situation are as follows:

Blame Kate for:

1. Being intoxicated, causing her to say things she may not mean
2. Not knowing when to shut up
3. Threatening divorce, child custody, alimony
4. Her infidelity
5. Failure to try saving a 7-year marriage
6. Staying out until early morning hours
7. Not being a proper mother to their son
8. Being selfish with disregard to his feelings

Minimize Drew’s behavior:

1. Suggest this was an act of emotion
2. Suggest he was under a great deal of stress
3. Suggest this was spur of the moment
4. Suggest this was situational
5. Compliment him for not mutilating her body (burning, burying, cutting, etc.)
6. Blame the time (early morning hours) – being tired, not thinking logically
7. Suggesting he loved his wife and couldn’t grasp his marriage ending
8. Contrast his behavior with serial murderers

The themes selected would be developed as follows:

“Drew, the results of our investigation clearly indicate that you caused the death of your wife, Kate. As I said, we are convinced you did this but let me explain what I think happened.

“First of all, we know she came home that night much later than normal. We also know she was drinking with a male coworker. You confronted her about what was going on and she flat out lied. You didn’t need to hear any more lies. You simply wanted her to stop what she was doing so you could salvage your marriage and provide a proper family life for your son. By the way Drew, I respect you for trying to insulate your son from what was happening. But the more you pleaded with her to be honest and work with you to try to save the marriage, the more spiteful, mean and selfish she became. Had she not been drinking and simply thought before she spoke, I’m sure this wouldn’t have happened and you know it! The more you pleaded for the truth, the more she screamed and the more aggressive she became. After awhile you simply wanted her to shut up, right? But she wouldn’t. You didn’t want your son to wake up and hear what was going on.

“I can’t even imagine all of the stress you were under realizing that everything you worked for was falling apart. All you wanted was to mend things but she didn’t care about you, your son or the marriage. I think the emotional stress caused you to act out of character and on the spur of the moment it happened - you grabbed her around the throat trying to shut her up. I ‘m convinced you really loved her and were willing to overlook her outside relationship. I think she screamed louder and you squeezed harder. After awhile she went limp and you realized what had happened. You’re being too hard on yourself Drew, it’s not like you’re a Jeffrey Dahmer or John Wayne Gacy – guys that killed dozens of innocent people. You are not like Stephen Kazmierczak at Northern Illinois University, with premeditation and for no apparent reason, shot 21people, five of them fatally, then shot and killed himself. You’re much different; you’re a good husband and father that made one mistake by overreacting to a situation.

“Drew, you are not a bad guy, you are a good parent and husband who was at the wrong place at the wrong time. After it happened, I think you panicked, placed her in the car and drove it to the end of your subdivision. If you were a bad guy you would have done something sinister like burning her body or burying her but you didn’t, you wanted her body discovered. Why? Because you still loved her, right? This was situational, wasn’t it Drew? ”

In our example, correctly identified motive(s) and proper theme selection and development should result in a more expeditious initial admission. Once an acknowledgment of the crime is obtained, the investigator should follow with questions in which the answers corroborate the suspect’s behavior, thus converting the admission into a confession.

For more information on the possible themes that can be used for dozens of other types of criminal acts visit, go to the Store and look for the book, Anatomy of Interrogation Themes by Louis C. Senese.

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