“I did it”…. is that a valid statement of guilt?

Written By: Joseph P. Buckley
May 29, 2024

The purpose of an interrogation is to learn the truth. In most instances, this consists of the guilty suspect telling the investigator what he did regarding the commission of the crime under investigation. The obvious reason for this outcome is that interrogation should only occur when the investigative information indicates the suspect’s probable involvement in the commission of the crime. However, there can be several other successful outcomes:

• the subject discloses to the investigator that he did not commit the crime but that he knows (and has been concealing) who did

• the suspect may reveal that while he did not commit the crime he was lying about some important element of the investigation (such as his alibi – not wanting to acknowledge where he really was at the time of the crime), or

• the investigator determines the suspect to be innocent

To identify the probable trustworthiness of a confession clearly requires an analysis of the circumstances and content of the interrogation, as well as intrinsic factors within the suspect who offered the confession.

The investigator should attempt, in every case, to obtain a confession that contains dependent or independent corroboration.

Dependent corroboration consists of information about the crime purposefully withheld from all suspects and the media. In other words, the only people who should know this information are the investigators and the guilty suspect. Examples of dependent information include the denomination of currency stolen in a theft, the origin of a fire in an arson, or the nature and location of injuries to a homicide victim, the type of murder weapon used, etc.

Upon arriving at a crime scene, the lead investigator should decide, and document on the case folder, what information will be kept secret.

The second type of corroborative information is called independent corroboration. This describes information about a suspect’s crime that was not known until the confession and was independently verified by the investigator. Examples include the location of a confirmed murder weapon, the recovery of stolen property, or verification of the suspect’s planning activities before the crime was committed or post-crime activities. Every investigator should strive to not only develop independent corroboration within a confession but to go out and verify it.

It must be remembered, however, that the same instincts that cause most guilty suspects to initially deny their crime also result in confessions that contain missing or erroneous information. The requirement that a confession perfectly match the crime scene, victim’s account, or be completely accurate in every detail would invalidate most confessions. Rather, a balance of interests must be achieved wherein the court, when deciding the trustworthiness of a confession, considers the totality of circumstances surrounding the confession.

With the above discussion in mind, the following represents some factors to consider in the assessment of the credibility of a suspect’s confession. These issues are certainly not all-inclusive, and each case must be evaluated on the “totality of circumstances” surrounding the interrogation and confession, but nevertheless, these are elements that should be given careful consideration:

  1. The suspect’s condition at the time of the interrogation
    1. Physical condition (including drug and/or alcohol intoxication)
    2. Mental capacity
    3. Psychological condition
  2. The suspect’s age
  3. The suspect’s prior experience with law enforcement
  4. The suspect’s understanding of the language
  5. The length of the interrogation
  6. The degree of detail provided by the suspect in his confession
  7. The extent of corroboration between the confession and the crime
  8. The presence of witnesses to the interrogation and confession
  9. The suspect’s behavior during the interrogation
  10. The effort to address the suspect’s physical needs
  11. The presence of any improper interrogation techniques

The Reid Technique is in complete compliance with all judicial guidelines and decisions regarding acceptable interrogation practices. When a false confession occurs it is not the technique that is the genesis, but rather the introduction of an element (most frequently a threat of harm and/or promise of leniency) that violates the Best Practices and Core Principles of the Reid Technique.

In a prior Investigator Tip, What Questions Should be Asked to Determine the Voluntariness and Validity of a Subject’s Confession? we listed a number of questions that should be asked to determine the voluntariness and validity of the statement, “I did it.”

We recommend that you also review the Investigator Tip, False Confessions: The Issues to be Considered.

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