Word Games Deceptive Suspects Play

Written By: Reid
Nov 01, 2011
Properly socialized people do not enjoy lying. None of us invite the feelings of guilt, fear or anxiety associated with telling a lie. On the other hand, we also don't like to tell the truth when the truth may cause loss of pride, esteem, income or freedom. Consequently, when a deceptive suspect is interviewed he tries to respond to questions in a manner that avoids telling a lie, but also avoids incriminating himself.

A common technique to accomplish this goal is evasion, where the suspect answers a question with a question. This is illustrated in a television advertisement where a family no longer has money to afford sushi. The daughter, holding an empty gold fish bowl asks, "Has anyone seen Captain Stuey and Little Miss Neptune?" The father, in between bites of sushi responds, "Did you look all over the place - under your desk?"

An evasive response is easy to identify and represents a fairly crude effort to avoid telling a lie. There are, however, more sophisticated verbal techniques deceptive suspects utilize to avoid lying to an investigator. This web tip addresses these word games.

Lying by referral

This is a form of disguised evasion and represents a clever way to avoid lying during an interview. One of the videos we present during our training seminars is of a police officer suspected of stealing $200 in money from the evidence room. This is a segment of her interview:

Question: "What do you think happened to that $200?"
Response: "Well as I told Frank, Jim and Randy, I think when the shelf fell last April the bag containing the $200 somehow ended up in the trash and was thrown away."

She told the truth in that this is exactly what she told Frank, Jim and Randy. What she left out of her response is that she lied to her co-workers. Truthful suspects answer interview question in the here and now - they stay in the same time zone as the investigator. Deceptive suspects, however, may jump back in time and make reference to an earlier communication. Examples of this include: "As I told the other investigator...", "As I wrote in my statement..." or, "My wife asked me that, and as I explained to her..."

Qualifying Language

Qualifiers within a response are the "small print" that is often overlooked. For example, when checking out at a grocery store we hand the cashier a coupon that advertises a reduced price on the pizza we bought. The cashier then explains that if we read the coupon carefully, the reduced price only applies if you purchase 12 or more pizzas on a Wednesday between 1:30 and 2:00 am.

Consider the following exchange during the interview of a person suspected of killing his girlfriend:

Q: "Did you have an argument with Julie this evening?"
R:"We really got along well and rarely had any disagreements."

Not only did the suspect evade the investigator's question, but by using the qualifier "rarely", the suspect is acknowledging having previous arguments with the victim. Cutting through the word games, the suspect's response indicates that he probably did have an argument with the victim on the night of her death.

There are dozens of words that qualify a response. Examples include not exactly, usually, may, perhaps, kind of, typically, often and occasionally. The investigator must remember that the suspect included the qualifying language within the response to avoid telling a lie. To ascertain the underlying truth often requires a follow-up question phrased with the qualifier in mind, e.g., "So, you have had some disagreements. Did you have a disagreement with Julie this evening?"

Unique Definitions

Consider the following exchange during an interview with a suspect accused of sexually touching his niece, Sally:

Q: "Did you have sexual contact with Sally?"
A: "I am not a child molester. I have never molested Sally!"

During the suspect's response he leans forward in the chair, emphasizes his denial with a hand gesture and exhibits direct eye contact. The proper inference in 90% of cases would be that because of the suspect's apparent confidence, he is probably telling the truth. However, the investigator must consider the possibility that the suspect is guilty of the offense and has attached his own meaning to the words "child molester".

When a suspect uses a legal or descriptive word within a response, especially when the investigator did not use that word when asking the question, the suspect should be asked to define the descriptive word. Often a deceptive suspect will give an exaggerated definition of the word, as the following example illustrates:

Follow-up: "Define for me what a child molester is."
Response: "Well, that's someone who forces kids to engage in perverted sex."

The allegation against the suspect did not involve forcing the victim in any way. Nor did it involve engaging in perverted sex with the victim. It is typical of a deceptive suspect to offer an exaggerated definition of the crime he committed. An innocent suspect, on the other hand, will offer an accurate definition of the crime, e.g., "A child molester is any adult who has sexual contact with a child."

Exaggerated Claims

During our advanced seminar we sometimes show the interview of a suspect accused of sexual contact with a 16 year-old girl. The girl claimed that the suspect leaned over, kissed her and placed his hand on her breast. She then explained that he moved his hand down from her breast and under the top of her jeans. This was the exchange at the outset of the interview:

Question: "What is (victim) saying that you did to her?"
Response: "It is my understanding that she said I kissed her, fondled her breast and put my hands down the front of her pants, which is completely ridiculous."

The victim, of course, never claimed that the suspect put his hands down the front of her pants - only a single hand. By exaggerating the victim's claims, he was able to truthfully deny (his version of) the victim's allegation.

When a suspect exaggerates the allegations against him, the investigator should correct the suspect's description of the accusation, and, if appropriate, re-ask the suspect if he committed the actual offense, e.g., "What she is saying is that you moved your hand from her breast to under the top of her jeans. Did you do that?"

Recanting Ownership

There is a good reason why courts to not accept hearsay evidence - it is a common deceptive ploy to imply personal knowledge of something when, in fact, none exists. Consider that a witness to an apparent battery offers the following description: "This guy got out of the car, punched the protester and left the young man bleeding on the ground. It was terrible. The thug drove away like a coward."

A person who has convinced himself that something actually did or did not happen can offer a very convincing account by omitting the ownership statement, "I saw." The person has left the door open to always claim, "Well, this is what other people said happened". In the suspect's mind his statement is truthful. Whenever a statement lacks an ownership phrase such as "I heard", "I saw" or, "I read" always ask, "How do you know this?"

In the above example, if the investigator were to pursue this further, the "witness" may recant ownership of his statement, acknowledging that he never actually saw the battery. Examples of phrases that recant ownership are:

"This is what I was told."
"I wasn't speaking as an (eye witness, scientist, doctor, etc.)
"I was just relaying my understanding of what happened."

Specific Denials

A guilty suspect knows exactly what he did, or did not do during the commission of his crime. Consider an employee who smoked marijuana in the parking lot on breaks during work hours. To avoid lying to the investigator's question, the employee may deny only a portion of the question. For example:

Q: "Did you use any marijuana during work hours?"

R "I never smoked any dope in the building during work hours!"

Because specific denials are truthful statements, they can mislead an investigator into believing a guilty person. An investigator needs to listen very literally to what a suspect is saying within his response, in particular, listening for what the suspect is not denying.

Descriptive vs. Non-descriptive terms

No one wants to buy a "used car", but potential buyers flock to a lot that sells "previously owned vehicles." Racetracks or casinos do not represent themselves as a place to gamble; they are institutions to "place wagers." Politicians are not "pro-abortion" they are "pro-choice." Certain words have negative connotations, and therefore we avoid using them when describing our own behaviors or values.

Similarly, a suspect who has had sexual contact with a child does not like to think of himself as a child molester; the suspect who has killed his wife does not like to think of himself as a murderer. Consequently, suspects guilty of a crime may use non-descriptive language when referring to the crime or the accusation, as the following examples illustrate:

Q: "What is your understanding of the purpose for the interview with me today?"
R: "Some lady's saying that I did something to her over the weekend." [The suspect is accused of raping a woman Saturday night]

Q: "Why do you think I've asked to talk to you?"
R: "I imagine it has to do with the incident at work last night." [The suspect's employer was robbed last night]


In casual conversation we tend to be passive listeners - our goal is to learn information and we accept what the other person says at face value. A criminal investigator needs to learn to listen actively and assess not only what the other person is saying, but also assess the credibility of the other person's statement. Part of this involves recognizing common verbal tactics that are used to avoid lying or to reduce feelings of guilt. While the tactics presented in this web tip are not exhaustive, they do illustrate how deceptive suspects manipulate a listener through their choice of words. The tactics also reveal the importance of listening literally to what another person says to fully understand the import of their statements.
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