Innocent Suspect’s Response to Interrogation

Written By: Reid
Jan 01, 2012
The process of interrogation is reserved for suspects whose guilt is reasonably certain. This assessment may be based on a combination of forensic or testimonial evidence implicating the suspect in the crime, circumstantial evidence revealing the suspect's opportunity, access, motive and propensity to commit the crime, or the suspect's behavior, e.g., going into seclusion following the crime, catching the suspect in a known lie, etc.

At John E. Reid and Associates about 80% of suspects who are interrogated provide a corroborated, trustworthy confession.1 We believe that many of the remaining 20% of suspects are guilty of the crime but simply resistant to legally permissible interrogation tactics. However, some of those suspects were deemed by the investigator to be innocent of committing the crime resulting in the termination of the interrogation. This web tip addresses the typical behavior of an innocent suspect during an interrogation.

To understand the innocent suspect's response to interrogation it is important to consider that prior to an interrogation, the investigator has spent 30 or 45 minutes interviewing the suspect. This interview is totally non-accusatory and the suspect does most of the talking. Because of this format, a rapport or trust has been established between the investigator and suspect. On the other hand, during the interrogation of the suspect the investigator does most of the talking. The interrogation represents an effort to persuade the suspect to tell the truth about involvement in the crime under investigation. These persuasive efforts cannot involve threats of consequences or promises of leniency.

Initial Response

When an innocent suspect is initially accused of committing a crime, at the outset of the interrogation, it would be typical for the suspect to reveal indications of disbelief and confusion. On the verbal level the suspect may offer an unequivocal denial as the following dialog illustrates:

I: Joe, our investigation clearly indicates that you are the person who broke into your neighbor's home. I would like to sit down with you so we can get this clarified, OK?

S: That's crazy! I never broke into their house or stole anything from them!

Sometimes however, because of the rapport that has been established between the suspect and investigator during the interview, the innocent suspect will not immediately offer a strong denial following the direct confrontation. Rather, his initial reaction will still be one of disbelief as the suspect patiently waits for the investigator to explain why it is that he thinks the suspect committed the crime.

Early Responses

Even if the innocent suspect offers a denial following the direct confrontation, it is typical of the suspect to sit back in the chair and listen to the investigator for several minutes. In the suspect's mind, he is trying to figure out what went wrong - "Why does the investigator think I committed this crime?"

During early stages of the interrogation, however, the investigator does not present any evidence of the suspect's guilt. Presentation of real or fictitious evidence implicating the suspect in the crime is a possible tactic reserved for later in the interrogation, in response to denials typical of a guilty suspect. Rather, during early stages of the interrogation the investigator attempts to encourage the suspect to accept a concept called a transition statement. An example of a transition statement is, "What will be very important to establish in this case is why this whole thing happened." In an effort to reduce the moral seriousness of the offense, the investigator will then offer the suspect face-saving justifications for committing the crime. These justifications are termed an interrogation theme.

After listening to the investigator's theme for a several minutes the innocent suspect realizes that the investigator is not offering any evidence or explanations as to why the investigation indicates the suspect's guilt. Consequently, the suspect will lean forward in the chair in an aggressive posture reflecting confidence and certainty - he is no longer willing to allow the investigator to dominate the conversation and falsely accuse him of involvement in the crime. The suspect's eye contact will be direct and appear resentful. The investigator will then hear a denial.

Evaluating the Suspect's Denial

This is such a critical stage of the interrogation that an entire step of the Reid Nine Steps of Interrogation is devoted to handling a suspect's denial. Because both innocent and guilty suspects will offer denials during an interrogation, the first objective is to evaluate whether the denial is typical of an innocent or guilty suspect.

The innocent suspect's denial will often be broad and all-encompassing, e.g., "I've never accepted a bribe in my life!" It is also typical of the innocent suspects to use descriptive language during their denial. Examples of descriptive language include "rape", "steal", "rob", "molest" and "murder."

On the paralinguistic level, the innocent suspect's denial has a very characteristic delivery referred to as the use of "clipped-word" endings. Each word of the statement is delivered in a staccato and separated fashion, e.g., "I - did - not - break - into - that - house!" This is a good indication that the suspect is experiencing sincere resentment at being accused of committing the crime, i.e., the suspect is innocent.

Certainly some innocent suspects have less confidence than others; some innocent suspects are introverted, non-emotional or adhere strongly to a belief that it is wrong to challenge authority. Regardless of these intrinsic personality differences, once the innocent suspect offers a denial, he will be persistent in his position. He does not sit back in his chair and entertain the possibility that he may have committed the crime for a morally justifiable reason. Rather, his denials become stronger and stronger and transmit the same message - "You are wrong. I didn't do it!" It may take ten or fifteen minutes, but eventually all innocent suspects will offer persistent, strong, definitive denials.2

Attempts to Terminate the Interrogation

A non-custodial suspect is free to leave the interrogation room at any time. A suspect who is in custody merely has to say, "I don't want to answer any more questions" or, "I want an attorney." If those or similar phrases are uttered by a custodial suspect, the interrogation must be terminated.

However, from a behavioral perspective, the suspect who, upon being confronted with his guilt, immediately leaves the room or invokes his Miranda rights is revealing a clear symptom of guilt. Innocent suspects will remain in the room, argue their innocence and offer strong and persistent denials. Even after the investigator is convinced of the suspect's innocence and goes through a process called, "stepping down" the interrogation, the innocent suspect remains in the room to make certain that the investigator understands that suspect was in no way involved in the offense.


Investigators are not perfect and the process of rendering opinions of guilt or innocence during an investigation is not an exact science. Because of this, innocent suspects will occasionally be interrogated. Critics have tried to suggest that when most innocent suspects are told that there is no question they committed a crime and then are falsely told that evidence implicates them in the crime, that they collapse in the chair, put their head in their hands and blurt out a full confession. As anyone who interrogates on a regular basis can attest, this is certainly not true. However, innocent suspects do respond differently to the interrogation process than guilty suspects. When a suspect's behavioral response to the interrogation fits the description of an innocent person, the investigator should "step down" the interrogation and consider terminating it altogether.

1 In our office we rarely have specific physical or forensic evidence implicating a suspect in a crime prior to an interrogation. When such evidence does exist, the confession rate would likely be higher.

2 This statement assumes that the suspect does not suffer from a significant mental or intellectual impairment and that the investigator did not engage in improper interrogation techniques that threatened consequences or offered promises of leniency.
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