He Almost Got Away With It… Reply

By Chris Simmons

A few years ago, I had the privilege of attending a “Statement Analysis” course taught by Don Rabon, the (then) Deputy Director of the North Carolina JusticeAcademy. Don is so gifted in the field of verbal forensics that his books on interviewing and interrogation are considered “must reads” by many within the law enforcement and intelligence communities.

In his lectures, Don convincingly argued that not only did every word have meaning, but its placement within a sentence told a story. He built upon his assertion by informing us the location of every sentence within a paragraph was relevant as well. We spent several days using his techniques to examine court testimony and other written or recorded statements and identify the truthful and dishonest segments.

During this class, one of his teaching points struck a chord as it beautifully demonstrated the impact of a single word. His tale, based on the recent investigation of a car fire, is reconstructed below:

Police Officer:  “Sir, can you tell us what happened?

Car Owner:  “Well, I’d been relaxing at home drinking beer and watching football — there are some really great games on today. By the time all the one o’clock games were over, I was pretty much out of beer. So I figured I’d run up to the convenience store and get some more before the four o’clock games got well underway.”

“Since I’d been drinking, I wasn’t about to get behind the wheel of a car, so I walked to the store. I bought my beer and headed home. When I got here, my car was already burned up. That’s when I called the fire department.”

Police Officer:  “Sir, turn around and place your hands behind your back. You are under arrest for arson….”

While the subject’s overall statement is built to deceive, one word stood out. Which utterance was it?

The word was “already,” which revealed the subject’s foreknowledge of the event. More specifically, this word indicated NOT that the subject was surprised by the fire, but simply by how fast his car had been incinerated.

Other indicators of deception abound. Note how little of the subject’s statement answered the police officer’s question. The officer did not ask him what he’d been doing that day, he simply asked about the fire. To this simple question, the subject provided a 105-word response, of which only ten words concerned the actual fire (less than 10%).

Notice also that not only is his reference to the fire buried near the end of his narrative, but that it is sandwiched between two positive affirmations, i.e., that he didn’t drink & drive and that he is the one who called the fire department.

Contrast the subject’s declaration with what an innocent person would likely have said.

Police Officer:  “Sir, can you tell us what happened?

Car Owner:  “I have no idea. I’d been home all day. I went to the store for a few minutes and when I got back; my car was a smoldering heap. Unbelievable.”

In this scenario, the distraught owner led off by directly answering the police officer’s question:  he/she didn’t know what caused the fire. The subject then provided some context before again addressing the fire by declaring exactly what he/she witnessed. They then closed with a statement of disbelief. (Note:  The statement of an innocent person will often be significantly shorter than someone trying to conceal misconduct.  Additionally, an innocent party will frequently make repeated references to a crime, whereas a guilty person will minimize the event. Here, the innocent person made a very concise 30-word statement of which 10 words (33%) addressed the fire).

In this true-crime story, the arrested man pled guilty to arson and attempted insurance fraud.