Taking a Statement From a Victim or Complainant

Written By: Reid
Apr 01, 1999
Many investigations begin with an interview of a victim or complainant. The success of the investigation, and subsequent prosecution of a suspect, will often depend on the accuracy and credibility of the victim's original statement. A victim's statement that contains inaccurate or misleading information may significantly decrease the likelihood of detecting the perpetrator's deception during an interview. The perpetrator, knowing precisely what was done during the crime, immediately recognizes the investigator's flawed questions and can appear quite truthful in his responses. In this regard, the statement, whether written out by the victim or the investigator, should only be reduced to writing after a thorough interview is conducted. A statement that is written contemporaneously while questioning a victim or complainant will invariably be less complete, and often even less accurate than one written after a properly conducted, in-depth interview.

The statement should confine itself to reported facts. Especially when an account is fabricated or contains omission, a victim will use vague words to describe the offense. The statement, "Mr. Johnson has sexually harassed me for many months and has created a hostile work environment by making unwanted sexual advances toward me," offers no substance whatsoever. The employee is merely expressing a series of opinions which may, or may not be based on fact. Similarly, phrases such as "molested", "assaulted" or, "tortured" are fairly meaningless in a victim's statement because they describe a wide range of possible activities. Rather, the statement should be limited to specific behaviors; in other words, what was verbally said or physically done. If emotional states are an important element of the offense, e.g., fear, humiliation, shame, etc., the investigator should attempt to incorporate, within the statement, behavioral elements to support the emotional state (avoidance of a particular person, not answering the telephone, seeking psychological counselling).

The statement should not be unnecessarily detailed. A defense attorney will look for information to impeach a victim's credibility on the witness stand. This effort will start with the victim's original statement. Because of the intense emotional states associated with many offenses against a person, actual victims often (unknowingly) exaggerate elements of it. Common areas of exaggeration are the length of time spent with the assailant, the size of a weapon, or the physical closeness between the victim and assailant. These types of details are often unnecessary to support the elements of the offense but, if included in a statement, do open doors for later cross examination, e.g., "You initially told the police that the man who raped you was 6' 4". My client is only 6' feet tall!" During an interview with a victim it is wise to ask questions that check for perceptual distortions. For example, if the assailant stood against a particular wall, the witness could be asked to identify a spot on the wall that marked the top of his head. To elicit the length of a knife blade, the investigator could hold a pen at different lengths to better allow the witness to compare the length of the pen to that of the knife blade. Unless the victim or complainant is able to confidently substantiate such details within a statement, it may be prudent to qualify the written statement. Examples of qualifying language include, "the knife used was approximately 6 inches long" or, "the man said, cooperate with me or your kids will die, or words to that effect."

The victim's statement should reflect his or her own language. Imagine the embarrassment for the prosecution when the defense attorney asks the victim to define a word contained within his or her statement and the victim is unable to do so, or defines it improperly. Especially when dealing with younger victims or individuals with little education, the language of their statement should reflect their age, level of education, and cultural background. In sex cases it is often beneficial to establish, at the outset of the interview, the victim's own terminology for sexual behavior. It is important that the investigator clarify with the victim the meaning of any specific terminology used. We learned this lesson from years of conducting paternity polygraph examinations where the central issue concerns the term "sexual intercourse". An amazing number of women offered a faulty definition of sexual intercourse. To some, sexual intercourse involved any physical contact with a man's penis; others believed that sexual intercourse did not occur if the man wore a condom.

The victim or complainant should validate the statement as accurate. After the statement has been reduced to writing, the victim or complainant should be asked to write the following sentence: "Everything in this statement is true and accurate." The primary purpose for this is to create an incentive and opportunity for the victim or complainant to review the statement one more time to make any necessary changes before accepting full responsibility for its validity. Not uncommonly, a person who has fabricated or exaggerated elements of a claim will modify portions of their statement before validating its authenticity. The inclusion of such a statement may also be beneficial in later prosecuting or disciplining a victim or complainant if the alleged incident turns out to be false.
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