The Use of the Accident Scenario During an Interrogation

Written By: Reid
Dec 01, 1999
Richard Ofshe, a prolific defense witness who champions the belief that police routinely elicit false confessions, recently testified that the major criticism of the Reid Technique is its use of the "accident scenario" during an interrogation. If investigators look for the accident scenario within the index of any of the three editions of Criminal Interrogation and Confessions, they will not find it. However, what Ofshe is referring to can be found on p. 103 of the 3rd edition of that text. Ofshe states that through the use of the accident scenario, the Reid Technique teaches investigators how to elicit a false confession. This web tip addresses this statement as well as the appropriate time during an interrogation to suggest a more morally acceptable motive for an offense other than what is known or presumed.

The interrogation technique Ofshe refers to is a two-part process. If the investigator is unable to persuade the suspect to tell the truth through the use of standard interrogation themes, it may be suggested to the suspect that the crime was committed accidentally or inadvertently (a gun went off accidentally during a robbery, a fire was inadvertently started when the suspect was playing with matches). In the case of a theft, the suggestion may be that the suspect merely intended to borrow the money and was unable to return it. If the suspect acknowledges physical responsibility for the crime, the investigator would then initiate the second part of the technique which is to point out inconsistencies between the suspect's version of events and what actually happened in an effort to learn the true circumstances behind the act. It is clearly our position that an innocent suspect would not be more apt to admit killing another person accidentally, for example, than on purpose. This statement assumes, of course, that the suspect was not offered any promise of leniency or threatened in any way. For example, it would be clearly improper to tell a suspect, "If you were just showing your friend the new gun and you pulled the trigger, not realizing that it was loaded, that's an accidental shooting. If that's what happened tell me about it and you can walk out of here and sleep in your own bed tonight. On the other hand if we leave this thing as it stands, all of the evidence indicates that you killed this guy and if you sit there and say nothing all you're doing is buying more time in jail."

Richard Ofshe has frequently stated that the accident scenario is designed to elicit a false confession. If properly used, this statement is certainly not accurate. The technique is not designed to, nor is it apt to cause an innocent person to falsely accept responsibility for a crime he or she did not commit. At most, it allows a guilty suspect to accept physical responsibility for committing his crime coupled with a false intention behind his act. A suspect who originally stated that he was working at the time his girlfriend was shot to death and, who through the use of this technique, now states that he did accidentally shoot his girlfriend when he was cleaning his gun has not offered a false confession. Rather, he has, in all probability, offered an incorrect circumstance surrounding a factual statement that he is responsible for shooting his girlfriend. If the investigator is unable to elicit the necessary criminal intention behind the shooting, it will be up to a jury to make that determination. However, the investigator's efforts to learn the truth by suggesting an accidental shooting hardly supports the claim that the suspect's claim that he is responsible for his girlfriend's death is false.

Suggesting a more morally acceptable motive for the suspect's offense often provides a legal defense for the suspect should he maintain that position, which is clearly undesirable. For this reason, this interrogation technique should be reserved for those situations in which physical or circumstantial evidence is available to contradict the suspect's stated motive -- it must be remembered that this is a stepping stone approach to learning the truth and if the suspect does not walk the entire pathway with the investigator, all that has been accomplished is that the suspect, at most, has offered a possible admission of guilt. When physical or circumstantial evidence pointing to the suspect's true intent is absent, this interrogation approach should be avoided. An example would be a child molesting case where the child reports that her Uncle touched her bare vagina. With a lack of physical evidence supporting the child's claim, it would be inappropriate to suggests that the suspect may have inadvertently touched his niece's vagina while wrestling with her. In contrast, consider an embezzlement case where it is known that the embezzler stole funds over a period of 18 months. In this case it would be appropriate to suggest that the suspect's original intention was just to borrow the funds and was unable to repay them.
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