The Significance of a Suspect who Accepts Personal Responsibility for an Investigation

Written By: Reid
Oct 01, 2002

During our seminars we teach that suspects who make admissions against self-interest during an interview are often innocent of the crime. An exception to this rule is the suspect whose admission, in some way, accepts personal responsibility for the crime. In essence this suspect is telling the investigator that even though he is innocent of any criminal wrong-doing, his actions (or negligence) may be responsible for the investigation. The following examples are from cases investigated by our staff:

  1. A suspect being interviewed concerning a $1000 shortage in his cash drawer stated that he made a large transaction that day and may have given the customer an extra $1000. He further stated that if his carelessness caused the bank to lose money, he should be terminated.
  2. A fire was started in the storeroom area of a loading dock by igniting waste paper dumped from a nearby barrel. During the course of the investigation one of the dock workers acknowledged smoking near the storeroom shortly before the fire started and admitted that his cigarette may have started the fire.
  3. A 7-year-old girl reported that her grandfather had put his hand down the front of her pants and rubbed her vagina. During his interview, the grand-father acknowledged that while wrestling and tickling his grand-daughter his hand probably did slip beneath her panties for a short period of time.
  4. Two hundred dollars was stolen from an evidence room at a police station. One of the suspects in this case hypothesized that the evidence bag containing money may have fallen into a wastebasket and that she would have been the one who emptied the wastebasket, throwing the money away.
  5. In a homicide investigation the husband of the deceased, who was killed at home one night, said that he felt responsible for the murder in that he left the back door unlocked, thereby giving the perpetrators an opportunity to gain access to the home.

In each of these cases the suspect exhibited deceptive behavior during their interview and confessed following an interrogation. The cases are representative of dozens of other suspects we have interviewed who have also accepted some level of responsibility for the investigation and ultimately confessed. This observation begs the obvious question, "Why would a person guilty of a crime make these apparent statements against self-interest?" Part of the answer is that the suspect is anxious to convince the investigator that there is no crime to investigate. By accepting some responsibility for the "incident under investigation" the suspect hopes to add credibility to his innocent explanation for the apparent crime.

However, a more significant reason a guilty suspect accepts some responsibility for the issue under investigation is to reduce the anxiety associated with the commission of the crime. By telling a major part of the truth, "Yes, a bullet from my rifle may have struck my neighbor but when it happened I was shooting at a squirrel" the suspect not only relieves anxiety associated with the homicide, but also minimizes the legal consequences of his actions. Consider the bully who punched another student on the play ground. His story to the teacher is that he did call the other boy names which caused that student to throw the first punch. By accepting some responsibility for the fight (calling the boy names) the bully has relieved considerable anxiety knowing full well that he threw the first punch. A similar principle explains why deceptive suspects are much more likely than innocent suspects to acknowledge having thought about committing the crime under investigation. By admitting having these thoughts the deceptive suspect is able to relieve anxiety associated with committing the crime without incriminating himself.

With the high correlation between accepting responsibility for an investigation and deception, an investigator should actively invite the suspect to accept responsibility for a crime by asking appropriate questions during a Behavior Analysis Interview. Some of the standard questions which have elicited meaningful information in this area are, "Do you really think (crime) happened?", "What do you think happened to cause (crime)?" or, "Who would have had the best opportunity to (commit crime) if they wanted to?" A more direct question that addresses this issue is, "Is there anything that you may have done innocently (or inadvertently) to cause (issue)?" An affirmative response to this question should generally be considered as indicative of deception.

However, the investigation must remember the first principle of behavior symptom analysis which is to never make an assessment based on a single observation - not every suspect who accepts personal responsibility for an apparent crime is guilty of that crime. In one such case a young woman's body was found at the bottom of a cliff overlooking Lake Michigan. Physical evidence was inconclusive as to whether or not she committed suicide or was pushed over the cliff. An investigation revealed that the woman had recently broken up with her boy-friend who subsequently became a suspect in her death. During the boy-friend's interview he tearfully acknowledged feeling responsible for her suicide because he was the one who initiated the break-up. However, the preponderance of his behavior strongly suggested innocence, a finding that was later supported by corroborating his alibi.

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