Tuesday, November 20, 2012

False Confessions: Reflective Language

by Peter Hyatt

               A false confession is a deceptive statement. 

This is the first in a series where we discuss false confessions, including those obtained through coercion.
This is not intended to be conclusive in studies on false confessions but is focused upon the words found within a false confession, and not upon body language analysis.

Question:  Can a confession be found to be false, even without knowledge of subject IQ, length of interview, fatigue, body language, etc?

Answer:  Yes.  Our focus is upon the words chosen by the subject, not upon IQ, education level, mental illness, intimidation, body language, and so on.  Although these are factors that should be part of an overall investigation, they are not elements of Statement Analysis.  In future articles, we will show the higher level of reliability of Statement Analysis over other forms of analysis. 

Sometimes a reader will read a published confession and say, "I don't buy it" in an instinctive dismissal, unsure of why it is viewed as false, but we must determine if the confession is truthful, or deceptive, and be able to show why it is we deem it 'reliable' or why we believe it is a false confession.  In any given case, we normally find those who say "I think this is false!  He was tired, he was afraid..." and we will find others who will look at the same video and say "he did it" without hesitation.   We will find intelligent people on both sides.  Professionals are split on the confession of Jessie Misskelly in the West Memphis 3 murder case:

We can know if a confession is false.

A false confession is a deceptive statement made about a crime or event, in which two elements are present:

1.  The subject gives an admission to the event
2.  The subject knows that the event is illegal, immoral or unethical.  (This has more to do with what is called 'white collar crime' than anything else where business practices commonly done may be questioned as to legality, ethics, or morality).  A subject may give an "admission" but unless the subject knows that what was done is wrong, it is not a confession.

A false confession is a deceptive statement made about an illegal event, taking ownership, or responsibility for the event.

A false confession is a statement taking ownership or responsibility for a crime, that is deceptive.

A deceptive confession can be discerned in Statement Analysis.

Question:  Why would anyone falsely confess to a crime he or she did not commit?
Answer:    For a variety of reasons:  fear, intimidation, fatigue, threat of repercussions to self or family, desire to please or agree with bullying interrogator, mental illness, attention, fame, infamy, and so on.

The motive for a false confession is secondary to analyzing the confession itself, and analysis is done independent of motive.  Analysis is done independent of motive.  Analysis is done independent of the motive of the prosecution or Interviewer.  "The subject is dead; the statement is alive"

Question:  Why can a false confession be discerned by analysis?
Answer:    Because the words do not come from experiential memory.

What is interesting in this answer is that this includes all false confessions, whether obtained through fear, intimidation, violence, or...

because the subject is mentally ill.

This is a common objection:  "mentally ill people lie all the time, therefore, you can't tell if they are lying or telling the truth, and you have to go by evidence."

Not so.  Evidence gathering will be done, but it is the very words of even the mentally ill that we listen to.

Reason:  It is the same for the false confession given by fear, given by motive for profit or fame, or given in mental illness:  In a false confession, the subject is not speaking from personal, experiential memory, and the words  chosen will reflect this.

When viewing a confession, the same principles used to discern truth or deception in statements.

When someone makes a statement denying a crime, we follow principle, and if the statement is enough sample to work from, we are able to come to a conclusion:

Reliable or Unreliable.  This is a guide for investigations.  If the subject, for example, goes on television and speaks, the investigators watching now have a gold mine of information and should be able to exclude or include the subject in the investigation after analyzing the appearance.


Because as human beings we all choose, in less than a micro-second, the words we speak.  Even when we are pausing in order to carefully choose our words, the articles and pronouns are still being processed instantly in our brains.  The "um" that we all use (and other pausing activities) tell the analyst the need for slowing down.

Sample A.         The subject is faced with an allegation of stealing a specific item.

When confronted with the obvious, he says:
"that's ridiculous; I didn't steal anything"

The interviewer (investigator) must now proceed from this point.  He or she must ask himself, "Is this a strong denial?"  This goes back to the formula for a strong denial:

1.  First Person Singular.   The pronoun "I" must be present.  If it is dropped, (pronouns are instinctive) the subject has deliberately held himself away from the statement.  If the subject uses "we" when "I" is appropriate, it is a weak denial as he is seeking to 'share responsibility' or spread it around in order to dilute feelings of guilt.

2.  Past Tense        The item was stolen in the past.  The denial must be past tense.  This is commonly seen in accusations against employees that they were under the influence while on the job.

"I don't do drugs!" often coupled with a lecture indicates that this is not a strong denial, and the interview must continue.   If the subject had, just moments ago, pledged to never use drugs again, the sentence "I don't do drugs" in the present tense, is a truthful statement.  It may be that this subject did not use drugs on the shift in question, but he has not cleared himself, and the interview must progress.  The analyst has flagged "I don't do drugs" as weak and must continue.

But what of the subject accused of theft who said, "that's ridiculous.  I didn't steal anything"?

In fact, this is not a strong confession.  Why not?

3.  Event Specific

The ridiculing of an allegation does not indicate guilt or innocence, but "I didn't steal anything" may be a way to avoid the specific item stolen, which a thief does not want to say.   This is similar to "I didn't harm that child" when the child has been murdered.  "Harm" is much softer than "kill" or "murder" and the minimizing should be noted.  It does not mean that the subject stole, but it does mean that he has not cleared himself.  We do not conclude deception on one indicator, but would then proceed knowing that we do not have a strong denial.

In a false confession, we analyze the statement with the same procedure that we analyze any statement.

Question:  What is a False Confession?

Answer:  A false confession is a statement that does not come from personal, experiential memory.  

We proceed with our analysis of the pronouns, verb tenses, and additional language employed, just as we would with any statement.

A false confession may come from memory, but it is not personal, experiential memory.  It could be, for example, the memory of a movie script, or, more likely, from the memory of what the interviewer has told him or her.  This is critical for analysis.  In fact, it is something that is taught to investigators and interviewers for the purpose of accuracy and honest work.

Principle:  Do not introduce new language to the subject.  

This is difficult.

It is difficult to teach this to investigators, therapists, journalists, and all those seeking information from the subject.

Training interviewing means not only giving principles to work from, but convincing the new investigator (or journalist, therapist, etc) to learn techniques that will cost them time.  In a world where information flows faster than the speed of light, and, unfortunately, time is measured by dollars per hour.

The  KGB was skilled in obtaining information.  They often obtained information through the means of physical torture, but physical torture will get them the information they ask for, but it may not always get them the information of which they do not have a basis for;  in other words, information they have no indications of seeking.  They may beat answers to questions A, B, and C, but if they do not know that question D exists, physical coercion may not produce D, especially if the subject is not even thinking of D.

It is here that they employed techniques that played off of the human need to speak.  They knew that if they isolated and silenced a human for a certain amount of time, the isolated human would talk.  It is human nature.  If the prisoner was isolated too long, the prisoner would mentally crack.  If the prisoner was isolated not long enough, the prisoner might not yet talk.

 Interrogations using brute force get specific, sought after information, but may miss information that comes from interviewing.   Here are some samples for interested readers to follow up with:

and from Menachem Begin:

This principle is difficult to practice, even with training, but is essential:  Do not introduce new language to the subject, but only reflect back to him, the wording the subject chooses.

Many interviewers, feeling pressed for time (or impatient) actually teach subjects how to lie rather than grasping the principle:

The subject has the information I need.  I am in need of the information, he is not.  I need to listen.

This is why we do not interrupt subjects, nor do we finish their sentences.

When I am conducting an interview, I allow the uncomfortable silence to work its magic, even when time feels like it is dragging.  When the subject introduces a new word into the interview, I write it down, and then I am 'permitted' to use it.  Interrupting a subject, or finishing their sentence will destroy the flow of information. This can even happen when an Interviewer is nervous or hurrying along.  Look at this critical miss in the initial OJ Simpson interview.

Police:  "What time did you leave your home?"
OJ:       "Which time?"
Police:   "When you went to the airport..."
OJ:         "Oh, that was at..."

By moving at a fast pace, the interviewer missed a critical admission:  OJ had left his home more than once that fateful night.  It was OJ who introduced the topic of leaving the home more than once.  The key is careful listening.

With body language analysis, during an interview, concentrating on the body may cause you to fail to listen to the information offered.

This is critical at obtaining information and can be, regrettably, something that TV interviewers do not have time for during live interviews.  They should, however, be trained so that when a new word is introduced, they can conclude that this new word (perhaps even a new topic) is not only in the subject's mind, but more importantly, it is in the subject's mind now, at this point in the interview, during this context.  This is similar to the principle of repetition:  any word repeated is important.  A humorous example comes from the television comedy "The Office" where the quiet, nerdy HR rep, "Toby" holds a secret crush on the secretary, "Pam" who appears interested in "Jim", another worker.  When "Jim" gets written up by his newly promoted boss in order to derail any progress Jim might make in the company, "Toby", the HR rep, is in the room.  He mumbles, "He is always talking to Pam, instead of working. Pam.  He spends his time with Pam rather than getting his work done. Pam."  His crush on "Pam" is seen in the constant repetition, even as he mumbled her name at a low level.  He wasn't thinking about productivity, but of "Pam." We say "repetition shows sensitivity" or importance; that is, an emotional connection to a word.  We flag the word "Pam" and are able to ask questions to learn why "Pam" is a sensitive topic to the subject.

This also holds true for what we call "negation" or, that which is introduced in the negative.  Anything offered in the negative is important. Skill in interviewing will reveal why something is sensitive.  Sometimes, it is obvious.

"I'm not an alcoholic" arises in a conversation that didn't appear to even be about alcohol.  You would be correct to know that alcohol is a sensitive part of the subject's life.  If you were carefully listening, you would have caught this, even in a room where no one appears to be really listening to anyone.  By simply listening to the words others choose around you, you will learn that they reveal themselves far more than ever intended, including sensitive medical issues, private sexual issues, and so on.  For those who listen carefully, they learn much, though, as Solomon said, much sadness can come from much learning.  Catching the change of language, for example, can reveal more to you than, perhaps, you wanted to know.  This is why pronouns are vital.  Possessive pronouns, for example, will play a vital role in discerning false confessions.

In a false confession, we apply our principles of analysis and watch out for some specific details.  Does the confessor know details of the crime?  If he committed the crime, he should.  But when an overzealous (or undertrained, or both) interviewer violates principles of Interviewing we may find:

Reflected language.  

Reflected language means that it is the subject who is using the interviewer's language, rather than the other way around.  It is the direct opposite of "The Green Beans Law"

As each question goes by in the interview, does the subject appear to merely repeat back the Interviewer's words?  

On a recent (last year) crime show, a young man, about 18 years old, confessed to a murder. 

In the interrogation, repeatedly, his answers were reflected language; not his own.  When the interrogator did allow him to speak (which was rare) the young man slipped into present tense language, and was vague about details until the interviewer gave him the language. 

I said, "this is a false confession" to Heather and we reviewed, on the fly, the points of the conclusion, with the following things we noticed without note taking:
1.  Reflected language
2.  Verb tense (he slipped into present tense)
3.  Pronouns:   he had several sentences where the "I" was dropped. 

The show was done fairly, unlike the police officer who, obvious to the eye (video) stood or sat close to the young man and used domineering body language and voice.  What we didn't know is how long this kept up (the show revealed that they kept the young man up all night).  The gruff interviewer got his confession by intimidation and feeding language to the subject. 
Yet, if we remove:

intimidation, and we remove fatigue,  we have the words of the young man showing deception.  

If we then even remove the interviewer's feeding of words, we still have a young man showing deception.  

During commercial break, I was angry at the scene of the bullying that took place, and wondered how such ignorance and lack of training can be part of law enforcement.  This officer likely went out to high five his fellow officers and celebrate while an 18 year old's life is effectively over. 

The show resumed and revealed that the young man's father was a pastor who had travelled to South America with his son and told police this, who dismissed him as another lying parent.  He then was able to locate the dentist who had treated his son's emergency root canal, and the dental records proved the young man was not in the country when the murder took place.  

The confession was false because it contained deception.  The confession was analyzed no different than any other statement and it showed deception.  This deception shows up regardless of the motive for confession:  fear, fatigue, intimidation, and so on.  The interrogator was either too ignorant, or untrained (or both) to listen to reflective language, verb tenses, and dropped pronouns. 

Principle:   If the subject does not have personal, experiential memory of what took place, his language chosen for the confession is going to show deception.    This goes for the mentally ill, as well.  If they did not experience what they are confessing to, it will show up as deceptive.  If the mentally ill did not, personally experience that of which is being confessed, the language will show deception.  This is where the analysis is needed to press further:

If the subject did not experience the event:

a.  Did he see it on television?
b.  Did he read about it on the news?

               Where did his information come from?

The number one answer is also the easiest to avoid:

The information came from the Interviewer.  

The lack of training (or poor training) is destructive and erodes confidence in law enforcement. 

Analysis is hard work.  It is not always as easy as some of the obvious news stories show, when a liar is obvious, such as the murderer of Caylee Anthony.  Yet, through careful training, interviewers can learn to ask open ended questions, and listen carefully, following up on the words the subject gives; not interpreting, but listening.    We may learn that a particular question is sensitive, but then more questions (and investigating) is needed to learn why something is sensitive. 

I liken it to the wife who asks her husband if he is cheating and he says, "How can you accuse me of that?" in anger. 

We note:

1.  He did not answer the question.
2.  He answered the question with a question. 

This concludes us to say:  "The question of cheating is sensitive to him."   We cannot say that he cheated, and we cannot clear him, either, because the question is sensitive.  What we need to learn is:

why is it sensitive?  It may be sensitive because he cheated.  Or, we must learn: 

Did they recently argue about this?
Is it sensitive to him because his first wife cheated?

It may be sensitive to him because of a myriad of reasons, so a follow up question is needed:

"Did you cheat on me?" 

"I am not going to dignify that with an answer!" 

We now have a second sensitivity indicator.  The odds now weigh in favor of calling an attorney.  If the couple had not recently been arguing about this, the conclusion is not difficult to draw.  

This leads us to another principle:

The more sample, the better. 

This is why when someone goes on HLN to talk about the missing person, it can become clear, from their own words, if they have guilty knowledge, or not.  The more they speak, the more we know.  The key is to let the subject speak.  Interviewers (and interrogators) get themselves into trouble by feeding language to the subject, even to the point of letting the subject know what it is that the investigator knows, which is a critical error. 

In false confessions we are likely to find:

1.  Reflective language; that is, where the subject echoes back the words of the Interviewer, reducing reliability. 

2.  Verb tense problems.  If the subject is making up answers as he goes along, he will likely slip into present tense language. 

3.  Dropped pronouns indicate a lack of ownership.  Possessive pronouns show ownership.  

Regardless of whether the false confession was given out of coercion, fear, intimidation, fame, fortune, thrill seeking, or mental illness, the fact that the subject did not have personal experience of which to rely upon for his or her words, will be seen in the wording.  If your practice is to circle every pronoun in a statement, and do this often enough, you will begin to, like a chess player, 'circle pronouns in your head' in such a way that you are carefully tuned in to hearing dropped "I's" just as much as you are tuned into hearing possessive pronouns, like "my" and "mine"; two words learned before most others as a child, and instinctive in human communication.  

Possessive pronouns show ownership.  Because it is instinctive (most children learn to say "mine" with their hands before they can speak), humans take ownership of what they wish to, and do not take ownership of what they do not wish to; and it is done so quickly, that it should be considered 100% (or close to it) accurate.  

If the subject says "my victim", you will know that, indeed, he or she had a victim of which he takes ownership of.  In false confessions, it may be the absence of possessive pronouns that you highlight as you make your way through the statement. 

It is in the conclusion that we draw from all the sensitivity indicators employed that, when viewed overall, including the factor of the size of the sample, we are able to show our discernment and the reason for our conclusion.  It may or may not feel 'instinctive' to the reader, but what is offered is the reason for our conclusion.  We take the analysis on the whole, noting introduced language, or the absence of such (reflective language).  

A false confession is discernible through the lens of Statement Analysis, just as a deceptive statement made by a guilty party is. 



SELLA35 said...

@Peter,the first link in the article,
http://seamusoriley.blogspot.com/2011/08/transcript-of-jessie-misskelly-jr.html gives me an error, saying page does not exist. Thanks <3 Sella

John Mc Gowan said...

Its official my partner and i are becoming SA geeks.lol..:-)

Jazzie said...


John Mc Gowan said...


An interview with the parents of missing Caleigh Harrison on the Nancy grace show..

Did Caleigh Harrison’s pants wash ashore?
By Katherine Cavazini
updated 12:10 PM EST, Mon November 19, 2012
Caleigh Harrison, 2, was last seen playing on a beach
Police are trying to determine whether a pair of pants that washed ashore belong to the missing girl.

Rockport police and Massachusetts State Police are trying to determine whether a pair of pants that washed up along Good Harbor Beach on November 9 belong to missing 2-year-old Caleigh Harrison, The Gloucester Times reported.

Caleigh was last seen on a Rockport, Massachusetts beach on April 19, playing with her mother, her sister and their dog. Her mother, Allison Hammond, told police she left Caleigh and her 4-year-old sister Elizabeth alone for about two minutes while she went to retrieve a ball that had gone over a wall, and when she returned, Caleigh was gone.

Rockport Police Chief John “Tom” McCarthy told The Gloucester Times that the pants found recently are “very, very similar” to the pink pants that Caleigh was wearing the day she disappeared. Good Harbor Beach is located approximately one mile south of the beach where Caleigh vanished.

A source close to the missing girl’s family reportedly told The Gloucester Times that authorities are planning to conduct DNA testing on the pants to determine if they belong to her.

Following Caleigh’s disappearance, Rockport Police and the U.S. Coast Guard devoted days to extensive water searches for the toddler utilizing divers and sonar equipment, but she was never found.

Caleigh’s father, Anthony Harrison, told HLN’s Nancy Grace last spring that a few days after she vanished, his 4-year-old daughter Elizabeth claimed that she had seen a mysterious man on the beach before Caleigh went missing. However, according to Harrison, the 4-year-old had initially said she did not know what happened and she has since offered a couple of different versions of events.

Massachusetts State Police spokesman David Procopio told HLN in May that authorities investigated the possibility that Caleigh was abducted, but they found no signs of foul play.

Anyone with information regarding the disappearance of Caleigh Harrison is urged to contact the Rockport Police Department at 978-546-1212.


Lis said...

This makes perfect sense. I wish interviewers were trained to follow SA principles. It's frustrating how with some, getting a confession, false or not, is more important than actually solving a crime. Chuck Erickson's coerced "confession" comes to mind.

Anonymous said...

Please help find Ayla
Lis..Chuck Erickson's coerced "confession" comes to mind.
November 20, 2012 1:11 PM

Chuck Erickson used the words":I remember " when recalling the murder.
"I went to the creek. And I REMEMBER I HAD BLOOD ON MY HANDS, ON MY PERSON and I — I put my hands in the creek and tried to get the blood off my hands," Erickson said. "And then I went — we went across the creek and we went up kind of like an incline, I think there's, like rocks — like, a rock wall or something. I REMEMBER having to — having a problem getting over all that stuff. And — and after that, I REMEMBER COMING out and I think — I'm pretty sure a gas station was to our left and we came out onto Providence."

Erickson saw his friend Dallas Mallory behind the wheel of a car stopped at a red light on Providence Road at Locust Street. He ran toward the vehicle.

"I didn't know what to do so I just told him — I was kind of in shock and just not knowing what to do about what we did," he said. "And I just told him pretty much that I, you know, didn't — I didn't know what to do and I'd — I'd beat this guy up and that — I REMEMBER I told him Ryan — it was Ryan's idea and … I guess I wanted a ride. I mean, I don't — I don't really — like, I didn't really — I just — I didn't know what to do."

Erickson was standing in the road talking to Mallory when suddenly there were police sirens from the direction of the Tribune. Mallory took off.

"He almost ran me over, actually," Erickson said. "He peeled out and drove away like really, really fast."

The teens ran through the Osco Drug parking lot and back to Ferguson's car, where Ferguson opened the trunk and removed a plastic grocery bag. He took Heitholt's belt from Erickson and placed it in the bag.

Erickson isn't sure whether he took off his Abercrombie sweatshirt, but he remembers putting his coat back on, and they returned to By George. They stayed for maybe an hour.

"Ryan, he, I REMEMBER, like, he kept on going to the door and checking and he said, 'No, we can't leave, there's a cop out front,' you know, 'no, we can't leave,' " he said. "Like, he would go back and forth. And finally it came to the point where they were making everybody leave the club so we walked out with the crowd, with everyone else."

Anonymous said...

Please help find Ayla

Mallory said that after leaving the Blue Note he saw Ryan Ferguson and Chuck Erickson together and remembers Erickson “running up” and saying something to the affect “we beat someone down”.


Anonymous said...

Please help find Ayla

Anonymous said...

Please help find Ayla
Lis..Chuck Erickson's coerced "confession" comes to mind.
November 20, 2012 1:11 PM
If Chuck and Ryan survive prison they will have a second chance at life, Kent didn't get a chance to speak a word of protest. He was ambushed from behind, Chuck confessed to hitting him in the head with a tire iron. Chuck also recalls the sound of Kents broken belt buckle falling to the ground as it broke off when Ryan strangled him to death. They are putting Kents family through hell. It's a continuation of the crime.

Anonymous said...

Please help find Ayla
Ryan Ferguson wrote this during his trial:
As I sit here now, writing this,
I don’t know what to think. All I
keep saying to myself is “Please don’t
convict me of something I didn’t do” & “Please
don’t take my life for something I have
no involvement in.” I’ve never been more
visibly shaken & scared in my life. HOW CAN
crime.) “I’M INNOCENT”.
Unexpected the quotation marks around statements of innocence. Paradoxially two truthful embedded statements.

Unknown said...

I tried to use the link to read the Jessie Misskelly analysis but it says the post is now gone. Why? Was this a mistake? I really wanted to read your analysis!!!

Is there an error in the link???