Investigating Issues of Intent

Written By: Reid
Jul 01, 2012
Two recent news events have centered around a person's intentions. The first was the shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman. The second was a White house correspondent named Neil Munro who was accused of heckling President Obama by interrupting the President's speech.

Neither individual is denying the primary accusation; George Zimmerman openly acknowledges shooting and killing the unarmed victim. President Obama's news conference was televised and Mr. Munro does not deny that he is the reporter yelling out questions while the President was speaking. Yet both individuals are denying guilt because of lack of intent. Zimmerman stated that he believed his life was threatened and he acted properly under the "stand your ground" legal doctrine. Munro stated, "I timed the questions believing the president was closing his remarks because, naturally, I have no intention of interrupting the President of the United States."

In presenting their explanations, both Zimmerman and Munro may appear plausible and credible. However, unlike behaviors, which are concrete and fixed in time, a person's intentions often represent a personal cognitive assessment that can be manipulated with time and motivation. Under this circumstance, a person's exhibited behavior symptoms may serve as a poor indicator of credibility.

To be sure, some claims relating to legal intent directly involve specific behaviors such as a man claiming that he shot his neighbor in self-defense after the neighbor first fired a gun at him, in which case he would know if he was telling the truth. However, many of these claims are based on subjective cognitive assessments such as personal perceptions, beliefs, or claiming lack of knowledge. When a suspect's claim of lack of intent starts with the statement, "I thought", "I believed", or, "I felt", the investigator is dealing with a cognitive assessment.

To illustrate the difference between behaviors and cognitive assessments, consider a hit and run where a pedestrian was struck and killed. The owner of the vehicle denies driving at the time of the collision. This represents a behavior. He certainly knows whether or not he was driving and, consequently, whether or not he is lying or telling the truth.

But let's change the facts where the owner openly acknowledges driving the vehicle at the time of the collision, but states that he is not legally responsible for the pedestrian's death because the pedestrian walked right out in front of the vehicle and the collision was unavoidable. This explanation represents a cognitive assessment by the driver. In his mind, of course, he will perceive the collision as unavoidable and therefore, that the explanation is a truthful statement. This internal belief will persist despite the fact that the driver knew he was speeding, trying to find a decent station on the car radio and talking on his cell phone at the time of the collision.

Behaviors can be proven through evidence. Fingerprints or DNA can directly place a person at a particular location, surveillance video can show a person engaging in a particular behavior and biological evidence can prove that two individuals were sexually intimate.

However, intentions often can only be inferred. A homicide suspect may claim that a gun discharged inadvertently resulting in the victim's death; a fraud suspect may state that at the time he wrote the check he believed there were sufficient funds in his account to cover the check or a man may claim the he believed the girl whom he had sexual relations with was 18 years old. These types of claims, typically made by suspects implicated by overwhelming evidence, each involve cognitive assessments which cannot be directly proven or disproved. Rather, the investigator can develop investigative information that may reveal the suspect's claim to be improbable, e.g., that a death was probably not accidental considering that the gun was fired three times.

With this in mind, the first lesson when investigating issues of intent is to appreciate that assessing the credibility of a person's stated intentions through behavior symptom analysis may be quite misleading. A better approach to assess the true intentions behind a person's actions is through factual analysis. In other words, the investigator will attempt to support or refute a person's stated intentions by identifying behaviors and events surrounding the incident, as well as evaluating the person's propensity to form wrongful intent.

To illustrate, consider a woman caught shoplifting a pair of sunglasses. A loss prevention investigator observed the woman place the sunglasses on top of her head and leave the store. When approached, the woman appeared confused and bewildered, and explained that she had fully intended to pay for the sunglasses, but forgot that they were on top of her head.

If the woman placed the sunglasses on her head and shopped for another 20 minutes before going through a checkout line to purchase 12 other items in her cart while casually talking to the cashier, her explanation is fairly credible. Further, if the woman was a regular customer who was elderly and had occasional episodes of forgetfulness the explanation becomes even more credible.

However, if the woman was seen carrying the sunglasses in her hand and, after noticing long check-out lines, placed the sunglasses on her head and briskly left the store, her explanation does not sound very credible. Add to this the fact that the woman lived in a different community and had no reason for shopping at that particular store and had three prior convictions for shoplifting, her explanation becomes even less credible.

To develop information for factual analysis the investigator should ask questions that address specific behaviors ("What did you do", "When did you do it"). Anything falling outside of normal behavior should be followed up with "why" questions, e.g., "Why did you wait 30 minutes to report the shooting?", "You already have 4 pair of sunglasses why did you want to buy a fifth?"

In addition, questions that address propensity (behavioral tendencies) should be asked. While propensity does not prove guilt, it can go a long way in establishing a person's true intentions. The following questions each address propensity:

"How many times have you shoplifted merchandise from a store?"
"Have you been questioned about shoplifting from a store?"
"Have you been convicted of shoplifting ?"
"Has anyone ever approached you asking you to (engage in crime)?"
"Have you thought about (committing crime)?"

For reasons previously discussed, "Did you intend to ..." type questions may not reveal valid behavior symptoms. However, this issue can be addressed by asking questions pertaining to the suspect's knowledge. Addressing a person's recent knowledge is a more concrete concept, and a better gauge of credibility, than addressing that person's intentions. The following are examples of questions that address the suspect's knowledge:

"When you went to the store that day, did you already have a plan in mind to steal a pair of sunglasses?"
"When you put those sunglasses on your head did you already have a plan in mind to walk out of the store without paying for them?"
"When you walked past the cashier, did you know the sunglasses were on top of your head?"

Finally, conversations or communication with others may provide useful insight about the credibility of a suspect's explanation for behaviors. This is particularly true if it is established that the suspect changed his stated intention at some point in time, e.g., initially the driver said the sun glare caused him not to see the pedestrian but now claims the pedestrian ran out in front of him. Examples of questions that address communication include:

"Did you tell anyone that (you purposefully engaged in behavior)?"
"Did you send any emails indicating that you (purposefully engaged in this behavior)?"
"Did you leave any voice mails indicating that you (purposefully engaged in this behavior)?"
"Did you write in a note or diary that you (intentionally engaged in this behavior)?"
"Did you change your explanation for why (incident happened) at any point in time?

Finally, an investigator needs to distinguish between intentions and motives. Criminal intent may or may not be required to satisfy the elements of a particular charge. Establishing the true motive behind a crime rarely is an element required to prove guilt. In fact, many guilty suspects mentally distort the true motive behind their crimes. For example, it is not necessary that a child molester acknowledge receiving sexual gratification through his sexual contact with the victim. It is likely that the molester has convinced himself that the contact with the victim was to express love and affection. In the eyes of the law, it makes no difference to the judge why the suspect had sexual contact with the victim, the defendant is still guilty of child molestation.

In conclusion, not all claims relating to lack of criminal intent involve cognitive assessments. However, when dealing with those that do, behavior symptoms of truth or deception are less valid and may be quite misleading. Rather, the best means to assess the credibility of these claims is through factual analysis. To accomplish this, the investigator needs to elicit information surrounding the crime to establish a probability estimate that the stated intention is credible. In particular it is productive to ask follow-up "why" questions, questions that develop propensity and questions relating to communications by the suspect.

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