By Peter Carlson
Sunday, September 13, 1998
Rich Fallin was a Montgomery County homicide detective who moonlighted doing home repairs. The killer worked as a home repairman, too, when he wasn't out hijacking cars, robbing banks or shooting people. Home improvement was what they had in common, and Fallin was working it, chatting with the killer about the fine points of installing doors and windows. It went on for an hour, maybe two, and the cops who were watching on the office closed-circuit TV were dumbfounded: When the hell is he gonna ask about the damn shootings?
But Fallin was in no hurry. After a while, the killer mentioned that he'd dated a woman whose house he'd repaired and she dumped him. Fallin loved that. That was his opening. He started talking about his ex-wife, how rotten she was, how much he hated her. He started getting all worked up. Pretty soon, he sounded like a psycho killer himself, saying he'd love to blow her head off if only he could get away with it. The cops watching the TV were going nuts: What the hell is he doing?
He was doing what he calls "getting down and dirty" -- pretending to be just as much of a dirtball as the suspect. What I should have done is borrow your gun and do her in, he told the killer, then you'd get blamed. The killer smiled, so Fallin kept going. Yeah, why don't you lend me your gun? You're going to jail anyway. The killer laughed. That was good. They were buddies now. So Fallin sort of eased into the subject of the woman that the killer had shot twice in the head during a carjacking in Bethesda.
"Somehow I got around to saying, 'Look, with that woman down there, what happened? Did she hit you? Did she slap you? Did the gun go off accidentally? Or what?' And he's sitting there and he doesn't know what to say. So I say, 'You know, I gotta have a decent reason to tell these people, so I can say, That's why the guy did it.'
"And he says, 'She was screaming. The bitch wouldn't shut up.'
"And I said, 'You're kiddin' me! I don't blame you. I hate it when [bleep] women start running their [bleep] mouths.'
"And he says, 'She wouldn't shut up. There was nothing else I could do.'
"I said, 'I understand that.'
"He said, 'I shot her right in the mouth.'
"I said, 'I bet that shut her up.'
"He said, 'That shut her up. I guarantee that shut her up.'
"And I said, 'But you shot her twice.'
"And he says, 'Well, that's because she was moving and I thought she was still alive and I didn't want her to suffer.' "
Bingo! That was it -- the confession that Fallin had been artfully enticing for the past three hours. All that jabber about home repairs and his ex-wife had paid off. And the killer, whose name was Alan P. Newman, ultimately pled guilty to four murders and was sentenced to four life terms in prison.
That interrogation occurred back in 1992, but Fallin remembers it like it was this morning. So does detective Craig Wittenberger, who was sitting in on the interview that day, watching Fallin weave his spell. Interrogation is an intense game of wits, and detectives tend to remember how they got a guy to admit he killed somebody.
Fallin is 48, bald, with a gray beard and blue-green eyes that light up when he talks about interrogations, which is one of his favorite subjects. He's got the air of a friendly barroom bull artist, and he cheerfully admits that his native ability to sling the baloney proved to be a handy talent for an interrogator.
"Basically, a lot of interrogation is bs," he says, smiling.
He's retired now, sitting in the office of the Fallin Investigative Service, his new business up in Mount Airy -- but he still loves telling stories about interrogations. The Newman story is just one of many. And it comes with an interesting aftermath: Long after he'd confessed and gone to prison, Newman used to call Fallin up, just to chat. Somehow, he was still convinced that they were buddies.
"He called me and he said, 'I need to talk to you. Nobody here likes me.' "
Fallin smiles and then says aloud what he would never tell Newman, what no interrogator would ever tell a suspect because it would give away one of the secrets of the trade: "Hey, I'm not your friend. It was a [bleep] put-on."
Cops Become Con Men
A put-on! That's one good way to describe interrogation. Other detectives call it a "game" or an "art" or a "scam." Some com-pare it to salesmanship. Others liken it to acting.
"We're great actors. We should all be able to make a lot of money," says Montgomery County detective Paula Hamill. "It really is acting. You have to make them believe that you really care about them. It sounds crazy, but it's a huge game."
"I could cry with them," says Jeff Greene, a retired Washington homicide detective. "I could make myself get emotional and cry with them. It's just acting."
Interrogation wasn't always so artful, of course. In most of the world for most of recorded history, interrogation was simply a form of torture -- not a prelude to punishment but the start of it, not a search for truth but a crude form of social control.
In the United States, in the early 1900s, interrogation was synonymous with the infamous "third degree." Cops routinely hauled suspects into a back room and beat them with fists, blackjacks, rubber hoses and phone books. "The so-called roughneck," Emanuel Lavine wrote in a 1930 expose, "is hit with everything but the foundation of the building."
If beatings didn't work, there were more creative tactics. Suspects were hung out windows, drugged, deprived of food and sleep and questioned for days. Or stuck in the "sweatbox" -- a tiny dark room transformed into a little hell by a scorching stove stoked with a noxious combination of coal, old bones, rubber and garbage. Or given the "water cure," which consisted of dunking the suspect's head in a toilet until he nearly drowned.
Back in the '30s, one reformer noted, police interrogations normally began with a simple statement: "If you know what's good for you, you'll confess." And suspects did. They confessed to crimes they'd committed and crimes they knew nothing about -- anything to stop the pain.
But those tactics, exposed by muckrakers and a presidential commission, produced a backlash. In 1936, in Brown v. Mississippi -- a case in which three black defendants were tied to a tree and whipped until they agreed to confess -- the Supreme Court outlawed physical coercion during interrogations. Thirty years later, in the famous case of Miranda v. Arizona, the high court went much further: It required that police inform all arrested persons that they had the right to remain silent, that anything they said could be used against them, that they had the right to have a lawyer present during interrogation and if they couldn't afford a lawyer, one would be provided free.
That recitation is now as familiar to the American ear as an advertising jingle. But in 1966, Miranda was enormously controversial, angrily denounced by police chiefs, politicians and editorial writers. It would handcuff the police, critics said, and ruin the criminal justice system because nobody in his right mind would ever confess again.
Actually, Miranda's effect was . . . approximately zilch. Cops continued to interrogate, and suspects continued to confess at about the same rate as before. In 1988, a panel convened by the American Bar Association concluded that Miranda "does not present serious problems for law enforcement."
What had happened is one of the great untold police stories of our era: Cops became con men.
Police departments sent their smartest detectives to interrogation seminars, where they learned sophisticated new skills -- psychology, kinesics, "proximics" -- as well as the use of new machines like the "computer voice stress analyzer." They combined these new skills with the ancient arts of acting, salesmanship and seduction, plus that old standby, the baldfaced lie. The result was a psychological form of interrogation that is as effective as the old third degree. It's so effective, in fact, that suspects have not only confessed to crimes they didn't commit but have actually come to believe, at least for a while, that they did commit them.
The difference between the third degree and psychological interrogation is akin to the difference between getting mugged and getting scammed.
"In the past 30 years, police interrogators have refined their skills in human manipulation and become confidence men par excellence," writes Richard A. Leo.
Leo, a criminology professor at the University of California at Irvine, is one of America's foremost academic authorities on interrogations. He sat in on 122 interrogations in Oakland and studied another 60 on videotape. He got so friendly with Oakland detectives that they offered to let him do some interrogations himself. (He was tempted but declined, citing academic ethics.) Ultimately, he concluded that an interrogation is, quite simply, a scam.
"Interrogation can best be understood as a confidence game based on the manipulation and betrayal of trust," he writes in a paper called "Miranda's Revenge: Police Interrogation as a Confidence Game."
The con works like this: Feigning friendliness, the detective offers vague hints of help and hope -- he's not allowed to offer actual assurances -- in return for a confession. The suspect confesses and promptly goes to jail. "He has just been conned," Leo writes.
You might guess that police interrogators would resent being called con men. You would be wrong. They love it.
"He's absolutely right," says Fallin. "I agree. It is a con game. You make them look at you and think, 'This is the one person who can help me. I'm in deep [bleep] and I'll admit to him what I did because he understands me and he's my only hope.' "
"You lie, you cheat, you do whatever you have to within the bounds of the law," says Hamill. "You're scamming somebody into buying the fact that you are the only person in the world who gives a [bleep] about them, and because of that, they should confess their deepest, darkest secret to you."
Detectives don't mind admitting that they're scam artists because they figure they're scamming on the side of the angels. Besides, highly skilled interrogators are the hotshots of any police department. They've got the egos of surgeons. They love the game and they love talking about it. And they're so confident of their abilities that they're not afraid to reveal exactly how they work their con.
We Have Ways of Making You Talk
Hi, how ya doing? I'm -- oh, man, I can't believe they freaking handcuffed you! Jeez, what's wrong with those guys? I'll go tell them to take the cuffs off. By the way, you want a cup of coffee? I'm gonna grab one myself. No? How about a Coke?
You walk in with a casual, friendly air. The suspect has been sitting there for 10 or 20 minutes already, stewing, worrying, looking around the interrogation room, which is nothing but a stark little box with beige walls -- no decorations, no distractions, nothing but a table and three chairs. Two of the chairs have armrests and padded seats. The suspect's in the one that doesn't, the uncomfortable one, the one farthest from the door. He's handcuffed to the table when you get there. You told the cop who brought him in to cuff him good and tight. That way, you could come in and liberate him. It's a variation on that old cliche, the good cop/bad cop routine.
You give him his Coke, show him what a nice guy you are, not like the cops who busted him and maybe slapped him around a bit. You're wearing street clothes, no gun, no badge, none of that intimidating cop stuff. Maybe you're alone or maybe there's another detective who'll sit quietly and serve as a witness to the confession you're going to wheedle out of this guy.
You sit in the chair that's positioned between the suspect and the door. It's a psychological thing. "You want him to know that there's only one way out," says Fallin, "and that's through you."
You introduce yourself and move your chair closer -- but not too close. This is what they called "proximics" in that three-day interrogation seminar you took. You start out about five feet away from the suspect, but you'll be moving steadily closer as you get going. By the time you whisper, You're not a bad guy, Joe, why did you do it?, you'll be close enough to touch him on the thigh.
You lay your folder on the table. It has the suspect's name on the cover and a bunch of papers inside. The papers may have nothing to do with this case -- they could be fliers for the annual precinct picnic -- but you want him to think you've already got a ton of evidence on him.
You start yakking, trying to find a topic he'll talk about. Can you believe that home run McGwire hit last night? . . . You think the 'Skins can cut it this year? If he bites on a subject, you go with it, keep him talking. If not, you pull a form out of your folder and start asking him easy, non-threatening questions. How do you spell your name, Joe? . . . What's your address? Maybe that'll help start a conversation: Oh, Maple Street. Do you know Larry Johnson? It's like trying to pick somebody up in a bar -- you've got to break the ice, start a conversation. You got any kids? . . . Two daughters? That's nice . . . What are their dates of birth?
That last one is a "root memory question" -- he's got to think about it for a minute -- -so you watch his eyes. When people try to recall some innocuous fact, their eyes wander off in one direction -- maybe right and up, maybe left and down, but it's always the same. "You want to see which way their eyes are going," says Roger Thomson, 48, a veteran Montgomery County detective who teaches in-house classes on interrogation. "You see their eyes going to one side, and when you interrogate them later and their eyes go to the other side, then you know they just told a lie."
You're also watching his body language -- kinesics to those in the interrogation seminar. They taught you that a guy rubbing his hands or stroking his head or touching his lips or picking lint off his clothes is probably lying -- and, thus, probably guilty. Professor Leo is skeptical of this. He figures that those movements merely show that the suspect is nervous -- and who wouldn't be during a police interrogation? Besides, he says, "academic studies show that police officers couldn't tell any better than a control group who was lying."
Maybe so, but veteran detectives see themselves as human lie detectors. Hamill took a kinesics course and she was impressed enough that she started keeping a written record of body language clues during interrogations.
"On top of my piece of paper, without them knowing, I'll have G and NG -- guilty and not guilty," she says. "If they move the chair away from me, I'll put a slash mark under G because they don't feel comfortable with me. If they won't look at me, I'll put another slash mark there."
So now you've got the suspect talking and you've picked up some nonverbal clues to his veracity. It's time to start discussing the crime. But before you do that, you've got to get past the stickiest, trickiest part of any interrogation.
You've got to dance with Miranda.
Listen, Joe, I talked to the witnesses and they all say you're involved in this thing. But before I file any charges, I'd like to get your side of the story. I want to hear you tell me what you did -- and what you didn't do. But first, I gotta read you your rights. You watch TV, you know the drill . . .
You're the detective. He's the suspect. You're trying to put him in prison. He's trying to beat the rap. That's fair enough. But now you've got to tell him that he doesn't have to talk to you, that he can talk to a lawyer instead, that if he does talk, you'll use what he says to put him away. And after you say that, you've got to persuade him to sign a form saying that he agrees to waive those rights and talk anyway. It sounds impossible. It sounds crazy. But actually, it's not as hard as you'd think.
"There's a lot of ways to get around Miranda," says William "Lou" Hennessy, who was head of the D.C. homicide unit before he became a defense attorney. "Most guys know how to get somebody to waive their rights."
Leo agrees. He cites several studies -- including his own -- showing that more than 80 percent of suspects waive their Miranda rights and talk. And more than three-quarters of those who talk either confess or give up damaging information.
It's all a question of timing. You've got to wait for the right moment. It's like seduction: If you ask somebody to go to bed with you five minutes after you've met, you're liable to get slapped. But if you sit and drink with them and look into their eyes and whisper things, you might get lucky.
It's the same with Miranda. If you read a guy his rights while you're busting him, like they do on TV, and you've got him spread-
eagled across a squad car and you're yanking his hands behind his back and cuffing him, then he'll sure as hell holler for a lawyer. If he does, your interrogation is over before it starts. But if you're sitting down, drinking coffee and convincing him that you're his only hope, that's different.
"It's one of those schmoozing things," says Hamill. "You have to wait for the right time and make it not a big deal."
Hamill, 32, a chatty blonde with pink nail polish, is a seasoned cop who has honed her interrogation skills over four years of investigating homicides and sex crimes. She'll wait for her moment, she says, then tell the suspect that she wants to hear his side of the story but she can't do that until she reads him his rights. Then she reads the form and before he can utter the word "lawyer," she adds: "Do you want to talk to me now, with the understanding that you can change your mind at any time and the interview's over?" It usually works.
"I had a guy who said, 'Yes, I want to talk to you until I don't feel comfortable anymore,' and I wrote exactly what he said on the form and he signed it. And then he confessed. And after he confessed, I started asking him about the details and he said, 'I want to talk to a lawyer.' " She laughs, then mimes incredulity. "But you already said you did it."
Jeff Greene says getting past Miranda is like fishing: You dangle the bait in front of the suspect, make him grab for it, then hook him. Greene, 52, is retired now, but he spent nearly 20 years on the D.C. homicide squad and Hennessy says he was the best interrogator he ever saw.
"What we used to do," Greene says, "and it's incredible how often it would work -- we'd bring them in there and say, 'Shut up. Don't say anything.' And then we'd give them a liiiittttle information -- enough to get their juices flowing -- about why we arrested them."
For instance, he'd say that he'd talked to their accomplices and then he'd pull out some papers that he'd say were their statements. That was the bait. Then he'd say, Now is your opportunity to tell us your side of the story. By then, the suspect would be dying to talk.
"Now you're ready to reel that fish in and you say, 'Before we do this, we've got to make this legal,' and you verbally give him the Miranda." He smiles. "Nothing wrong with that."
Greene had another tactic, too. He'd tell a murder suspect that he already had enough evidence to charge him, no problem. The only question was: Would it be manslaughter or second-degree murder or first-degree? He'd painstakingly explain the differences in the crimes and the penalties. Then he'd say: Now, before I decide which it is, do you want to tell me if this was an accident or premeditated or what? By then, the guy was usually eager to waive and talk.
Of course, Greene didn't inform him that a mere detective doesn't decide what the charge will be -- the prosecutor does that.
The most infamous Miranda scam of recent years was the one FBI agents tried to pull on Richard Jewell, the security guard they suspected had planted the bomb he'd found in an Atlanta park during the 1996 Olympics. The agents told Jewell that they wanted him to come to the FBI office to help make a "training video" designed to teach agents how to interview crime scene witnesses. Jewell agreed. While taping the video, the agents pretended that their reading of Miranda and Jewell's signing of the waiver were merely demonstrations of proper interview techniques.
Later, after admitting that Jewell was innocent, the FBI issued a halfhearted apology for what it termed the "training video ploy," but then added that it "was not improper per se."
Ironically, the ploy backfired. Jewell, who had been eager to talk, got suspicious and called his lawyer.
Listen, Joe, there's no point in denying it any longer. We know you did it. We found your fingerprints on the gun. Two eyewitnesses saw you there. And your partner told us you fired the shot . . .
So you've waltzed past Miranda, and now your suspect is talking about the crime. But he's denying everything. He says he wasn't there. He says he was home watching TV. He says you've got the wrong guy. You figure he's lying through his teeth. Which is no big surprise. After all, he wants you to let him go. Now, you've got to convince him that lying is futile. So it's time for you to start lying, too.
"Trickery and deceit," says America's premier interrogation textbook, Criminal Interrogation and Confessions, "are not only helpful but frequently indispensable in order to secure incriminating information from the guilty."
One of the great things about being a cop is that you're allowed to lie. The Supreme Court says so. You can tell the suspect that you found his prints on the scene when you really found zilch. In Oregon v. Mathiason, the court said that was fine. You can tell him a buddy confessed even though his buddy told you to go to hell and asked for a lawyer before you'd even sat down. In Frazier v. Cupp, the court said that was perfectly okay.
Lying is not only legal, it's essential. If the suspect thinks your case is thin, he'll never talk. So you lie. You tell him you've got him cold, so he may as well confess because only confession can help him now. Which is, of course, often another lie.
In 30 percent of the interrogations Leo witnessed, detectives lied about their evidence. Some of the lies were whoppers. One detective told a suspect that aerial photos proved his alibi was untrue. Another told a suspect that "molecules" found at the crime scene matched his molecules.
"I am a wonderful liar," says Fallin. "I can lie very well. But you've got to be careful. Don't tell him somebody saw him doing something he didn't do."
"If you're gonna lie, you better know what you're lying about," says Hamill. "If you say, 'Look, your fingerprints were there,' you better know for a fact that he wasn't wearing gloves. Because as soon as they know you lied, you have no chance in hell. You can stay there till the cows come home but they're not gonna tell you anything."
The toughest lie to put over is the most devastating one -- that the suspect's partner ratted on him. "It's a tough lie," says Fallin, "because nine out of 10 times, they don't believe you."
In that case, you might want to run a classic cop scam, an elaborate con so beautiful that it has been immortalized in Criminal Interrogation and Confessions. It goes like this:
You busted Smith and Browne for burglary. You separate them and tell each that the other has confessed. But they're not buying it. So you handcuff Smith to a desk in the office, near a secretary who's typing away. After a while, you parade Browne past Smith and into an interrogation room. An hour later, you step out and call the secretary in: Rose, could you please come in here and take a statement? Rose knows the drill, so she gets up, casually sharpens a pencil, picks up her steno pad and walks into the interrogation room.
Smith is watching all this and starting to wonder about Browne: Is the SOB copping out? He sits, waiting and wondering, remembering all the rotten things Browne has ever done. Time passes very slowly. A half-hour later, Rose returns and sits down. Ignoring Smith, she opens her steno pad and starts typing, maybe calling out a question like, Hey, does Browne have an "e" in his name? When she's done, she takes the bogus "statement" into the interrogation room, then returns to her desk and resumes her work. Ten minutes later, you parade Browne, who never did confess, past Smith again.
Then you come back to the office and escort Smith into the interrogation room. If your con worked, his attitude has changed completely. He's very talkative now. You can barely shut him up. Not that you'd want to.
Okay, Joe, you say you're innocent and I believe you, I really do. But my boss thinks I'm crazy. He's positive you did it. Would you be willing to take a lie detector test?
Detectives love lie detectors. They're not infallible -- Hennessy says they're "about as accurate as the weatherman" -- and you can't use the results in court. But they're great props. They put the mighty weight of science on your side and crank up the pressure on the suspect.
A detective uses a lie detector, Leo writes, "as part of his act."
The act goes like this: The suspect says he's telling the truth. You ask if he'll take a polygraph test. If he says no, you use that against him: What are you afraid of, Joe? If he says yes, you wire him up and give him the test. If he fails, you've got a very powerful weapon: Joe, the machine says you're lying.
"A lot of times the guys will break," Fallin says. "They'll start crying. They'll say, 'You got me.' That's perfect -- to have him admit he did it to the polygraph operator."
But what if a suspect you're certain is guilty passes the test? You've got two choices. You can tell him he flunked and keep questioning him. Or you can tell him he passed and take a detailed statement about where he was at the time of the crime. "They're feeling pretty powerful when they've passed the polygraph," says Fallin. "You take a statement of denial and he signs it. He's got to stick to it. And maybe you can prove he's lying."
This decade has seen the rise of a new lie detection machine -- the "computer voice stress analyzer," a device that allegedly identifies falsehoods by measuring inaudible stress in the voice. It's scientific validity is unproven, but cops love it.
"It's a great tool," says Hamill, one of a few Montgomery County detectives trained to use it. "I have had phenomenal success with it. I can just lay it out and say, 'This is a lie . . . Tell me the truth.' And they're just so shocked or so taken aback that they end up coming around."
Hennessy remembers watching D.C. police Lt. Jim Boteler use the voice stress analyzer to coax a confession from a teenager suspected of shooting a Korean American dry cleaner in 1993. For hours, the kid swore he didn't do it. Then Boteler hooked him up to the machine.
"It said he flunked when he said he didn't do it," Hennessy recalls, "and this kid broke down and started crying. And he started confessing. And he goes over to Boteler and he starts hugging him and he says, 'You're like the dad I never had.' "
Lie detectors are so helpful that detectives who don't happen to have one handy will sometimes concoct a bogus one. One old trick is to use a Xerox machine that you've loaded with papers that say "Truth" and "Lie." Ask the suspect his name, hit the button and out comes a paper that says "Truth." Then ask if he fired the fatal shot, hit the button and out comes the one that says "Lie."
Obviously, this ploy works best with suspects not previously employed at Kinko's.
Fallin remembers convincing a suspect that a portable cop radio was a lie detector that lit up when it heard a falsehood. He had his partner hold the radio and asked questions designed to elicit truthful answers. No light flashed. Then Fallin got the suspect to lie and his partner pushed a button that made a red light pop on.
"You have to have somebody who's naive," Fallin says, laughing. "If the guy knows what a polygraph looks like, you're caught."
Bogus lie detectors aren't the only high-tech devices faked by clever detectives. "Some investigators are so creative," Leo writes, "that they seem able to immediately invent whatever technology is necessary."
For example, San Diego detectives told a suspect that a nonexistent "Cobalt Blue" test had found his fingerprints on a corpse. A Sacramento detective told a suspect that his guilt was proved by what he called "the reticulated demographic, ah, subcutaneous photos." And cops in Richmond, Calif., concocted a bogus "Neutron Proton Negligence Intelligence Test" and told a suspect that it proved that he'd fired the murder weapon.
"Man, I swear I didn't shoot that gun," the suspect said in the transcript Leo obtained.
"Well, take a second and research your memory," the detective replied, "because the Neutron Proton Negligence Intelligence Test tells me differently. You sure you didn't test-fire it or something?"
"I might have shot it at my brother's house," the hapless suspect replied.
I know you shot him, Joe, 'cause we got your prints off the gun. But I don't think it was coldblooded murder. I've met coldblooded killers, Joe, and you're not that kind of guy. I think he threatened you. I think he was coming at you . . .
If you want the suspect to confess, you've got to let him save face. Let him say it was an accident, or he didn't mean it, or the victim provoked it, or whatever. In Criminal Interrogation and Confessions, this is called "minimizing the moral seriousness of the crime." Cops call it "giving him an out."
"You've got to give him that out," Fallin says. "You say: 'You burglarized the house because you don't have enough money to buy your family food, right?'
"Or: 'You didn't want to kill the guy, he came at you and you shot him in self-defense.'
"Or: 'She told you she wanted to go to bed with you and the next thing you know she was claiming rape.' "
The out is the best interrogation trick of all because it plays right into the suspect's deepest desire. All night, he's been trying to concoct an alibi that you'll believe and now you're giving him one, so he grabs at it.
"Remember," Fallin says, "they want to come up with a story that'll get them out of trouble."
But your story won't get him out of trouble. By agreeing to your scenario, he's admitting that he was at the scene of the crime and that he did something to the victim. That helps you, not him. Now all you have to do is prove that his version is a lie. And since it was your lie in the first place, that shouldn't be too hard. The suspect says he shot the guy in self-defense, but you know that the guy was shot in the back from 30 feet away. He says the woman was eager for sex but you know she's got two broken ribs and a black eye.
"You throw something out to him," says Craig Wittenberger, "and see if he bites."
Wittenberger, 38, a veteran Montgomery County detective, remembers interrogating a man suspected of committing a rape at a local mall. The guy kept denying everything and the interrogation was going nowhere. So Wittenberger lied. He told the suspect that they'd found his fingerprints on the woman's car. Then he gave him an out: Maybe something happened, maybe she came on to you.
"You could see the wheels turning in this guy's head," Wittenberger recalls, "and he said, 'Yeah, I met her at the mall and she came on to me.' "
Once he grabs the out, you get him talking, telling his story. He's making it up as he goes along, so it's a hodgepodge of truth mixed with self-serving lies. That's okay because he's telling you he did the deed.
Maybe that bogus confession is enough. But maybe you want to challenge him, see if you can force him to tell the whole truth. You say, But it couldn't have happened that way, Joe, because he was shot in the back.
Now you've got him. You can see it in his eyes. He's beaten. He's ready to give it up. You slide your chair closer and reach out a friendly hand.
"You move closer and closer," says Hamill. "You get close enough to touch the person. If they back up or get a little jumpy, then they're still nerved up and you're not anywhere close yet. But if they don't do anything when you touch them, then they're starting to come around to your side."
"You want to be able to touch them, usually on the thigh or the leg," says Fallin. "It's almost like a coach patting you on the ass. It's not sexual. You touch them and there's this closeness. All of a sudden, there's a bond."
And now the guy's giving it up, he's telling you exactly what happened, he's confessing to everything. Maybe he's crying and maybe you're crying, too. He's given you what you want, now you do something for him: You tell him what he did wasn't so bad, that you've heard a lot worse plenty of times. This makes him feel that confessing to you was worth it: It earned him a kind of informal absolution.
"You have to be able to tell people, 'It's okay, it's okay, we all make mistakes,' " says Hamill.
"I've told many a guy that's murdered somebody, 'You know, I hate to say this but I probably would have done the same thing,' " Fallin says. "They think, 'Aaaaaah, this guy doesn't look down on me for shooting this woman.' And suddenly the guy is your buddy. And he's calling you from jail."
These guys are very good at what they do. So good that sometimes detectives skilled in the art of interrogation occasionally do the seemingly impossible: They elicit confessions from innocent people.
Leo and Richard J. Ofshe, a sociology professor at the University of California at Berkeley, have documented more than 50 cases of what they call "police-induced false confessions" from the past three decades. A few examples:
*Glenville Smith, a Queens, N.Y., man, confessed to the murder of his landlady's teenage daughter and led police to 13 places where he said they'd find her body. Then the missing girl turned up alive.
*After 13 hours of intense interrogation, a factory worker named Leo Bruce confessed to killing nine people at a Buddhist temple near Phoenix in 1991. He implicated two other men, who turned out to have been in prison at the time of the killings. They, too, confessed. A couple of months later, the real killers were caught with the murder weapon and Bruce and his friends were released.
*During a long interrogation, police in Goshen, Ind., convinced Edgar Garrett that he had killed his 16-year-old daughter, who disappeared one Sunday morning in 1995. For hours, Garrett denied the accusation. But the detectives lied, telling him that eyewitness testimony and blood evidence implicated him. They also told him, falsely, that he'd failed a polygraph test. Finally, he agreed that he must be guilty but said that he couldn't remember committing the crime. The detectives convinced him that he was suffering from amnesia or alcohol-
related blackouts, so he confessed. He was later acquitted when his confession was proved to be completely at odds with the facts of the case.
Some interrogators express skepticism about the possibility of false confession. "An innocent person never confesses to something he didn't do -- unless he's crazy," says Montgomery County detective Roger Thomson.
Jeff Greene disagrees. "I actually saw in my career maybe a half-dozen cases where people admitted to murders they didn't commit," he says. "I think it's a psychological thing -- the interrogators were so adept, so good at doing what they did, that they absolutely broke the spirit of the person."
In one case, he says, a crack addict admitted to being an accomplice in a carjacking murder, but she was never charged because her confession didn't jibe with the facts of the case. "I think [the detective] was just very adept and he spent a lot of time and he just broke her," Greene says. "She denied it for hours and hours and ultimately, she said, 'Yeah,' but she came up with facts that just didn't make sense."
There is probably no way to end the problem of false confessions, but Leo believes that one simple reform would help: Require police to videotape all interrogations from beginning to end. It is a policy already in effect in Alaska and Minnesota, and it permits judges and juries to see exactly what suspects confessed to -- and how the confession was induced.
"Videotaping is in everybody's best interest," Leo says. "It's in the cops' best interest because they are sometimes wrongly accused of doing something wrong. Why not create a record? That would get rid of the credibility battles."
Washington defense attorney Mitchell Baer agrees. "If the criminal justice system is really a search for truth, that's what should be done," he says. "From the defense attorney's point of view, it would be great. I'm sure the cops would not use the techniques where they lie or intimidate somebody into making a statement."
Hennessy is decidedly cooler to the idea. "From a police perspective, I don't like videotapes," he says. "First of all, we lie to suspects. We're allowed to lie to them, but it leaves a bad taste in the jury's mouth that we lied. Another thing is: I don't like the idea of [the jury] hearing these guys cry -- the emotion that's involved in it. I like it where [the confession] is just on a sheet of paper: 'Yes, I did it.' It's sanitized. It's nice and neat and the emotion's taken out of it."
On the other hand, he says, videotape can help the interrogator if he gets the suspect to act out the crime on tape. "You get them to show you how they did it," he says. "That's damning, buddy, particularly if he choked the guy or strangled him."
The Next Best Thing to Sex
Paula Hamill won't ever forget the first time she got a guy to tell her he'd killed somebody.
She'd been on the homicide unit for about a year and she was given an unsolved murder case. She questioned a suspect she thought might be guilty but she couldn't get anything out of him. One night, she decided to try again. She drove to the guy's house in Washington, asked him if he'd be willing to talk, told him she'd give him a ride back home when they were finished. He agreed and they rode to police headquarters in Rockville, chatting about his landscaping business.
She took him to the interrogation room and they sat there, with her partner looking on, talking all night. At first, he denied everything, but after a while he admitted that he knew the murdered woman and then he said, yeah, he was partying with her and a bunch of other people on the night she was shot. By then, six or eight hours had gone by and it was almost dawn and she was huddled up right next to the guy, maybe a foot away from him, looking right into his eyes.
"And then I said, 'Who shot her?' And he just looked at me and said, 'I did.' I almost jumped out of my clothes."
Of course, she didn't. She remained calm and professional. She sat with the killer for another half-hour, typing up his statement and charging him with murder. He had been as jumpy as a junkie all night, but after confessing, he was calm and jovial. He even thanked her for being so nice to him.
After he was safely incarcerated, she leaped up, pumped her fist in the air, exchanged high-fives with her partner. Then she called her boss and woke him up, yelling: He confessed! He confessed!
"It was awesome!" she says. "It's pretty awesome to be able to do that. You're, like, 'Whoa, he just told me he killed somebody!' "
It is awesome. Getting a killer to confess is one of the biggest thrills in police work. It's an adrenaline rush that's better than any high. It's the next best thing to sex, an interrogator said at a seminar Leo once attended.
Maybe he was exaggerating a bit, but not much. Interrogation is a high-stakes game and winning it is a huge thrill. That's the psychic payoff that keeps detectives playing the game.
"It's fun," says Fallin. "Most people who are good at it, they love doing interrogations. It's a challenge. It's a game."
"Doing interrogations was my favorite part of police work -- absolutely! -- because it was the ultimate challenge," says Hennessy. "Attorneys want to become great trial attorneys and criminal investigators want to become great interrogators. You're considered by your peers as being in the status of the elite."
To be a great interrogator is to be a hotshot in the police department. Cops know how hard it is to get somebody to confess and they look up to those who can do it. "If you're a good interviewer," says Hamill, "you're like a god -- to be able to get somebody to tell you he did something that's gonna make him spend 30 years in jail, that's pretty amazing!"
Stories collect around these gods of interrogation, tales of legendary tricks and classic cons.
Hamill tells stories about Roger Thomson. "My first kid murder I did with Roger," she says. "I sat there with Roger as he interviewed the guy. It was phenomenal. His ability to get things out of people is amazing. The guy kept talking about God and stuff like that and Roger whipped out this Bible . . . and said, 'Here. What does God say?' He's just really good."
Hennessy tells a story about watching Jeff Greene coax a teenager into admitting that he'd looked a cop right in the eye and then shot him dead. "When he started feeling that the guy was breaking, Jeff was sitting right up next to him, touching him. He had his hand on him, he had his arm around him, and the kid's crying and Jeff's crying along with him! Literally! It was phenomenal!"
An ace interrogator is a legend -- but only to a few dozen people. The rest of the world doesn't understand. They know nothing about the great game of interrogation and the proud hustlers who play it so well. Nick Valtos, head of the Criminal Investigation Division of the Prince George's County police department, tells a story that pretty much sums up the whole situation. It sounds apocryphal but he swears it really happened. Either way, it captures the whole business -- the con game of interrogation, the cockiness of the detectives, the ignorance of the rest of the world.
There was this detective, see, and he was a great interrogator, one of the best. And one day he applied for a moonlighting job selling cars.
"A lot of our detectives sell cars when they retire," Valtos says, parenthetically. "It's a people skill."
Anyway, this detective is being interviewed for the job by the guy who owns the car dealership. And it's obvious the guy isn't too impressed with the detective. He says, "I know you're a police officer and I really respect the police, but what makes you think you can sell somebody a car?"
The detective is a proud man and he can't believe the chump is saying this. He starts getting all hot under the collar and he says, "Listen, you [bleep], let me tell you something: Every day I take people into a little room and I tell them they don't have to talk to me. And then I tell them that if they do talk to me, I'll use whatever they say to put them in jail. And then I get them to talk to me. And then I get them to tell me the worst thing they ever did."
The detective pauses dramatically, oozing contempt for this mere car dealer. "And you don't think I can sell a [bleep] Chevy?"