Updated: Jun 12, 2021
“They noted such devices for extracting statements as keeping a suspect in suspense, (keeping him waiting for long periods) constant repetition of the same question, bluffing assertions that all the facts are known anyway, that a clean breast will enable them to make things easier at trial”
-Report of the Royal Commission on Police Powers and Procedure, 1929.
Being invited to make a statement at a Garda Station is often be a routine matter. But in the hands of some career-minded Gardai it is not. Exercising caution is highly advisable. PATRICK HORAN explains why.
Perspective is Key THE DETECTIVE MAY BE GOING THORUGH A DIVORCE, the kind that’s going to be expensive, the kind that’s going to be bitter, the kind that’s going to eat into his wages every week and make living with his girlfriend that bit harder, the kind that’s just not going to be enough to live the life he’s told himself he deserves.
Now you walk into his life.
Confessions are the gold standard. What does this mean?
Evidence is important, very important obviously. Seizing objects that links a suspect the crime are a basic cornerstone of any properly-run investigation. So is locating CCTV which may show a suspect at the scene of the crime at the time of the commission of the offence.
A word of advice though: decades of watching CSI Miami etc have convinced people that CCTV is ubiquitous, that it exists everywhere. It doesn’t, and often where cameras do exist, they’re switched off.
Witness statements are also important; perhaps a witness can step forward to tell the Gardai that they saw the suspect at the location at the time of the offence? But these types of evidence, though important, are important only in the sense that they may place you at the scene in and around the time of the offence. They do not point towards you having committed the offence. These are problems for detectives, big problems.
A confession signed by you solves all their problems in one swoop. If you sign a statement agreeing that you committed the offence, if you put your name to this, the entire investigation comes to a shuddering halt, the Gardai stop looking for any other evidence, fold up their tents and head for home. That leaves you in trouble; a lot of it.
Never underestimate the stresses placed upon a person in an interview room of a Garda station. Whatever you thought you knew about police interviews is wrong and it is wrong for a number of very important reasons.
FIRSTLY the Gardai.
Your opposition are usually detectives. A distinct misapprehension in the public mind exists regarding detectives. The public’s perception of detectives is driven largely -if not entirely – by Hollywood and its fictional portrayal of the archetypal policeman.
The myth created by television is that only the finest minds make detective. The public imbues detectives with having exalted powers of deduction, of being especially able, for example, to detect lying in others etc.
This myth has been embedded in the public mind since at least 1891 when “A Study in Scarlet” was published and the literary world gave birth to Sherlock Holmes.
Holmes was followed by others. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot boasted -without irony- that he was “probably the greatest detective in the world”. The thread running through the likes of Holmes, Poirot, Columbo and even Jessica Fletcher was a singular belief in logic and an iron determination to find the culprit through a process of reason.
Whatever you thought you knew
about police interviews is wrong
and it’s wrong for a number of
very important reasons
Few of these factors exist in real life.
Firstly, detectives within the Gardai are appointed by senior management and as senior management place a high premium on blind obedience over competence, the officers who eventually don the plain clothes of the detective branch are therefore most definitely not in the ilk of Holmes or Poirot.
In short, detectives within the Gardai are appointees, men and women who owe their privileged positions not to an unusual policing ability, but to senior management.
Appointees are usually singularly devoid of reason and, regrettably, logic to boot. Appointees also understand one sacrosanct rule: anyone who can give you a privileged position like Detective, can also take it away.
This ensures strict compliance. The nightmare for all detectives within the Gardai is to be taken out of plain clothes and reassigned to uniform. That is an almost unthinkable fate, the surest indication that you have fallen from grace forever.
Therefore, detectives are compromised and are possessed of antennae particularly attuned to the needs of Garda Management. As Garda Management crave positive media attention above all else, your sole objective as Detective is not necessarily to get to the truth of what happened, but to please your master.
Why mention logic and reason? Because it matters quite a bit when it comes to false confessions. False confessions arise when, due to exhaustion, trickery or some underlying mental health issue, people sign confessions admitting to crimes they haven’t committed. Although not as endemic an issue as in the United States, false confessions do occur in Ireland too.
One of the many reasons why people of sound mind admit to doing something that they did not do is the rising sense of alarm and panic which eventually comes to envelop them within the confines of a small interview room and which causes them to fixate -almost above all other considerations- on getting out.
The pressure of having to answer what seems like the same questions again and again causes some people to imagine that if they just sign the statement they can leave and sort the whole mess out later on.
THIS IS A CRITICAL MISTAKE but one I have seen on occasion over the years. Detectives around the world are no different to detectives within An Garda Siochana.
Consider the following statement from An Garda Siochana’s “Crime Investigation Techniques” (1994): “in the majority of cases, confessions form the main part of the prosecution case” (p.77). That statement is taken from the opening paragraph of chapter 4, headed “Suspects”, a chapter devoted to the proper means by which interviews ought to be conducted.
Now read that sentence again; it’s telling you something.
The Gardai know that CCTV is merely circumstantial evidence in the sense that it only puts you at the vicinity of the crime. After all, it’s not a crime to be at a place is it?
They also know that witness testimony is notoriously unreliable and even fingerprint evidence is not conclusive as your prints might have been left there last month or even last year. All these things together will likely not result in a conviction.
But a confession will.
A signed confession is like gold dust to the Gardai. And so they do everything in their power to procure it, not by violent means obviously, but by subtler methods, by resort to such novel tactics as bluffing that “other evidence” exists when it does not, by exhorting suspects to “get it off their chest”, by promising not to “object to their bail” (extremely frequent) or promising to “speak up” for them in court (also very common).
A signed confession is like gold dust to the Gardai
And they do everything in their power to procure it
When you’re exhausted and these quite understandable propositions are put to you in an impossibly reasonable tone, then what’s the harm in signing a statement if it means you can get out of that hole and back to your life? Just give them what they want, right?
Its unlikely that most people reading this would do such a thing, would agree to sign a statement admitting to something they hadn’t done, but it does happen and it does happen to people with no criminal convictions and who are of sound mind.
The Question Room
ROBERT (53) HAD TRAVELLED DOWN from Dublin to Cork with his older brother Paul. Paul asked Robert to travel with him and he had agreed. They had driven to Blanchardstown and parked up.
A man had approached their parked car and handed Paul a box which Paul placed in the boot. Paul had said nothing and Robert had admitted later that he ought to have questioned Paul about this, but Paul was his older brother and in the end he didn’t.
When they arrived in Cork they drove to a hotel carpark.
Both Robert and Paul went into the hotel as Paul had to make a call. His nerves totally shot, Robert went to the bar and ordered whiskey. He worked up the courage and demanded from Paul that he tell him what was going on but Paul was non-committal and merely told him to drink up and that they had to drive to some other location in the city.
Robert angrily told Paul that he would drive to this place but no further. Paul agreed and they got back into the car. As they exited the hotel carpark two drugs squad cars drove either side of Robert’s car and they were arrested. The box in the boot contained E20,000 worth of cocaine.
Robert was in Garda custody for more than 14 hours.
He was interviewed 3 times, each interview lasting about 80 minutes. For the first two interviews he denied completely that he had known or suspected that the box which had been delivered in Blanchardstown contained drugs.
Robert agreed that the box had been delivered but insisted that he had never known what it was. Yes, he agreed, he begun to have suspicions when they reached the hotel in Cork and Paul insisted on making calls.
Yes he suspected that something wasn’t right, but repeated -over and over- that he had not known that the box contained drugs.
But in the end Robert confessed.
He confessed to being in possession of drugs with a value in excess of E13,000 for the purposes of sale and supply. This offence is extremely serious and carries a mandatory 10-year prison sentence. Yet, Robert admitted to it and as soon as he did so, the interview ended.
Just like that.
No further questioning, no search for further evidence. As soon as he signed the confession it all ended and within 5 minutes he had been released.
“They said that it didn’t matter what I said,
that they had the evidence, that all this
could be over soon or otherwise they’d
keep interviewing me all night and the next
day. I just wanted to get out of there
and I signed the statement..."
Later, when he came to meet me for a consultation, he still denied knowing what had been in the box. I asked him why he had admitted to the offence, why he had signed the confession.
“Because I just wanted to get out of there” he said ruefully. “I just wanted to get out of there”.
“They were asking me the same questions over and over and I kept giving them the same answers over and over but it was like they weren’t listening, they only wanted to hear me admit it.” He said that this cycle of repetitive questioning took its toll.
Other considerations began to worry him.
He said that his wife and children had no idea where he was and that they would be getting worried about him and that this thought, among the many others, “really started stressing me out”. He was certain that they would be ringing his phone, getting no answer and starting to panic.
That caused him to panic.
“They said that it didn’t matter what I said, that they had the evidence, that all this could be over soon or otherwise they’d keep interviewing me all night and the next day.
I just wanted to get out of there and I signed the statement”.
DID ROBERT KNOW WHAT WAS IN THE BOX? I think not. His protestations to me were unusually vehement. The real target of the Garda raid had been his brother Paul, who was known to the Gardai. Robert was not.
He had no previous convictions and at age 53 was unlikely to start embarking on a life of crime as he ran his own business. He saw the trip as a chance to renew his relationship with Paul, but Paul did not tell Robert what his true motive for travelling to Cork was.
After the arrest he did not speak to his brother again. At some moment Robert became aware that this trip was not all it had been sold to him as but as he said to me, “I was passing Naas wondering to myself what the hell is going on here?” Robert had accidentally found himself involved in something from which he could not extricate himself.
He never spoke to his brother again.
REMEMBER THE PART ABOUT detectives being assumed to be able to detect liars better than the average person?
Its not true.
In an experiment conducted by Saul Kassin, professor of psychology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, Kassin found that police detectives were on average no better than ordinary members of the public in spotting deception. Why?
Kassin explains that many detectives feel that they must be imbued with a special talent for spotting deception and that the pressure of this feeling forces them to dangerously attribute deception to often non-indicative “cues” such as avoiding eye contact, touching one’s lips while speaking, looking to one’s right etc.
The problem with these “cues” as Kassin points out, is that people may exhibit them whether they’re stuck in traffic and are worried about being late for work, or in a police interrogation room. In the former instance it’s interpreted as stress or anxiety, in the latter, as deception.
That’s when problems begin.
-Patrick Horan, 2021.