Recently, I reviewed a videotaped interview of an 17-year-old suspect who was being questioned about starting a fire that burned down his parent's home. During the interview the investigator asked the punishment question: "What do you think should happen to the person who started the fire inside your home?" The suspect's response was, "A person who starts a house on fire should be sent to jail." My initial interpretation of this response was that it represented a concerned attitude (harsh judgement against the guilty) and was, therefore, more indicative of an innocent suspect.
However, the preponderance of this suspect's behavior throughout the interview clearly supported deception. He had a static and rigid posture, expressed unhelpful and unrealistic attitudes, engaged in erasure behavior after denying starting the fire and offered an early denial when asked if he did anything that may have caused the fire. The suspect was therefore interrogated and eventually confessed that the morning of the fire he was flicking lit matches toward a sofa (out of boredom) which caused the sofa to start on fire. Being unable to extinguish the fire, the suspect panicked and ran to school without reporting the fire to anyone.
After hearing the actual circumstances of the fire, the suspect's earlier response to the "punishment" question made perfect sense. The suspect's response only addressed a narrow aspect of the investigator's original question, e.g., a person who starts a house on fire should be sent to jail. The suspect, of course, did not start the house on fire, only a sofa. When a suspect denies a narrow aspect of the investigator's question it is called a specific denial.
An investigator must remember that the guilty suspect knows exactly what he did or did not do during the commission of a crime. To avoid an outright lie, a guilty suspect may offer a specific denial both during an interview or interrogation. These responses, if interpreted literally, are truthful statements so the suspect may not reveal any deceptive nonverbal behavior symptoms. Consequently, the investigator must rely on careful listening skills to identify specific denials.
Recognizing when a suspect has offered a specific denial assists the investigator in two ways. First, when a specific denial is offered during an interview it alerts the investigator that the suspect is withholding information to the interview question. Under this circumstance, the investigator needs to ask follow-up questions that address what the suspect has not denied. As an example, consider that an employee is asked, "Have you use any illegal drugs during work hours?" and the employee's response is, "I never smoked any dope in the building during work hours." This specific denial should stimulate the following interview questions:
"Have you used any illegal drugs outside of the building during work hours?"
"Have you used any illegal drugs prior to coming to work?"
"Have you used any illegal drugs during lunch hour at work?"
"Have you used any cocaine during work hours?"
The second benefit of recognizing a specific denial is that the statement often provides insight to the suspect's crime. Under this circumstance, the investigator may have to adjust statements made during an interrogation. During our training seminars I present a case where the owner of a parking garage discovered that one of his six managers was embezzling money by destroying backup tickets issued to customers. We started the investigation by interviewing the manager with the longest tenure, believing that he was probably not involved in the theft. However, this manager's behavior clearly indicated deception so the investigator returned to the room and began an interrogation. After several minutes of listening to the investigator's theme the suspect leaned forward and emphatically stated the following: "Listen, I have never stolen any money by destroying backup tickets. That is stupid. They check records. You're committing suicide by destroying backup tickets!"
The investigator recognized that the suspect was not denying stealing money, but rather, denying stealing money by destroying backup tickets. The investigator responded to this specific denial in the following manner, "I'm not saying you destroyed backup tickets. In fact, I'm sure you would never do that. All I'm saying is that you ended up with some of the company's money and we just have to figure out how much it would be." Once the interrogation addressed what the suspect actually did, the suspect's denials stopped and in ten minutes he was adding up the total amount of money he stole by not turning in customer payments (a theft the employer was not even aware was occurring).
The following are other examples of specific denials that provide possible insight to the suspect's crime. The portion of the response that makes it a specific denial is underlined. In brackets, following each response, are possible interpretations of the response.
"No one ever gave me the combination to the safe." [the suspect found the safe open or discovered the combination written down somewhere.]
"I did not sell three nickel bags of marijuana!" [The suspect sold four nickel bags or two dime bags.]
"I did not hot wire that car." [The keys were in the car or someone else hot wired the car.]
"I did not hit her with anything!" [The suspect punched, choked or kicked the victim with his arms or legs.]
"My wife was in a great mood at dinner." [After dinner they had a fight]
"When I was transferred to this department I was not given the security code." [The suspect obtained the security code at some point after being transferred.]
In conclusion, to avoid telling an outright lie, suspects may deny some narrow aspect a question or allegation. This behavior is referred to as a specific denial. When a suspect offers a specific denial to an interview question, the investigator should ask follow-up questions that address what the suspect is not denying. If specific denials are heard during an interrogation they often provide insight to the suspect's crime. Under this circumstance, the investigator may need to modify statements made during the interrogation to accommodate the specific denial.