Evaluating the Suspect Who Accepts Some Responsibility for the Crime

Written By: Reid
Aug 01, 2005

During the course of interviewing a suspect who is guilty of committing a crime it is not uncommon for the suspect to acknowledge some level of responsibility for committing the crime. While the suspect's statement falls short of an admission of guilt, in many situations it becomes a behavior symptom supporting the suspect's probable guilt. Examples of these circumstances include the following cases:

A teller who stole $1000 from his cash drawer openly acknowledged leaving his cash drawer unlocked and unattended thus creating the opportunity for the theft to occur. The teller went so far as to suggest that he should resign his position because of his negligence.

An employee who stole $200 in money from an evidence room at a police department accounted for the shortage by claiming not only that the money was accidentally thrown away, but that she would have been the person who threw it away.

A grandfather accused of fondling his granddaughter's vagina openly acknowledged that he did accidentally put his hand down her panties when the two were wrestling on the floor.

An employee who started a fire inside a warehouse admitted that, because he had smoked in the vicinity where the fire started, there was a strong possibility that one of his cigarettes may have started the fire.

Accepting responsibility for a crime seems contradictory to the attitudes most guilty persons display during an interview. Typically, a guilty suspect tries to distance himself from the crime he committed. The suspect often attempts to minimize his motive or access to commit the crime and may place himself far away from the crime scene. Why then do some guilty suspects closely associate themselves with the crime they committed to the extent of accepting some level of responsibility for the commission of the crime?

One possible reason is that it represents an attempt to offer an innocent explanation for the reported crime (inadvertent contact with the granddaughter's vaginal area, careless use of smoking material, accidentally throwing money away.) By offering this innocent excuse, the guilty suspect hopes that the investigator will conclude that no crime was committed and the investigation will be terminated. Especially when a guilty suspect is caught in a web of circumstantial evidence there is often an attempt to offer an innocent explanation to excuse away evidence, e.g., "Yes, I did sleep with boys but there was no sexual touching. The boys may have consumed alcohol but the alcohol was not intended to reduce their sexual inhibitions."

In many of these cases, however, there may be another underlying motive. After all, the arsonist could have said that the fire was accidentally started by "someone's" cigarette, or the theft from the evidence room could have been accounted for by "someone" accidentally throwing the money away. Why would the guilty suspect go so far as to accept personal responsibility for the crime? By accepting some level of personal responsibility for the crime, the suspect relieves guilt associated with committing the crime which, in turn, will reduce the suspect's fear of detection.

To illustrate this effect, consider that my son was driving his girlfriend home from school in our new car. To show off his driving skills my son speeds around a corner and side-swipes a parked car. In a frightened state of mind he drives away from the accident. Our new car has a three foot crease down its side and my son has to make a decision. He quickly eliminates telling the truth because that would result in negative consequences (probably losing his driving privileges). He could claim complete ignorance and wait for me to discover the damage but that option would involve significant lying accompanied with the greatest level of guilt. He could tell me that the car was somehow damaged while parked at school but that would result in very thorough questioning by me, which he is anxious to avoid.

Psychologically, the best strategy for my son to take would be to tell me that he exercised poor judgment by parking too close to the exit lanes in the school parking lot, which caused another car to side-wipe our car. Because of his admission against self interest I would accept this explanation at face value. As icing on the cake, my son might accept further responsibility by offering to pay for some of the damage. At that point, swelling with pride because I had raised such an honest and forthright son, I would reassure him that our insurance will cover the cost of the damage and give him the keys to our other car.

Does this mean that anytime a person accepts some responsibility for an act of wrong-doing that it is an indication of that person's guilt? Of course not. During our training seminars I present a case where a night manager at a hotel claimed to have inadvertently left a ring of keys out on a desk. Her explanation for the theft is that someone discovered the keys and used one of them to steal money from a safe deposit box. Who is our #1 suspect in this case? Obviously the night manager. However, during her interview she never attempted to use her negligence as an excuse for the theft. In fact, she acknowledged routinely leaving the keys out and that the night the theft occurred was no different than many others. The night manager's innocence was verified when another employee confessed to finding the keys and using one of them to steal the money.

The primary difference between this innocent suspect and the previously mentioned guilty ones is not that the night manager's actions may have contributed to the commission of the crime, but rather, that she did not use her negligence as an excuse for the crime occurring. Another telling difference is the manner in which she brought up her negligence. While she did not lie about failing to secure the ring of keys, she was reluctant to reveal this violation of policy. The previously mentioned guilty suspects almost appeared anxious to accept personal responsibility for the crime and, in each instance, volunteered the information before being specifically asked about possible negligent behavior.

A behavior related to accepting personal responsibility for the commission of a crime is the suspect who expresses regrets during the interview. Examples we have encountered include a husband who blamed himself for his wife's murder because he did not install a security system, as well as a number of parents who stated that they felt responsibility for their child being sexually molested because they naively trusted the molester. Similarly, many suspects have expressed regret at not intervening with a loved-one's chemical dependence, gang affiliation or choice of friends. In these cases, the suspects have been innocent of involvement in the crime under investigation. Consequently, expressions of such regrets should not be considered a behavior symptom of guilt. Especially when a crime involves great personal loss, it is human nature for an innocent person to go through a stage of self-incrimination where the person says to himself, "If only I did such and such, (the crime) never would have happened."

In conclusion, when a suspect makes a statement that accepts some responsibility for the commission of a crime, it can be a behavior symptom indicating that person's possible involvement in the offense. This is particularly true if the statement offers an innocent explanation for the circumstance that brought about the investigation. It should also be considered suspicious when a suspect acknowledges that a crime was committed but appears almost anxious to accept some level of responsibility for its commission. Conversely, it is not unusual for innocent suspects to express regrets concerning some aspect of their behavior relative to the commission of someone else's crime. Clearly, a distinction must be made between accepting personal responsibility for a crime, e.g., "When I was cleaning my gun it accidentally went off and shot my wife" and the suspect who expresses regrets, e.g., "If I would have kept my gun locked up this never would have happened!"

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