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How Coercive Interrogations Can Lead to a False Confession

by Brian Leslie

To discuss coercive interrogation methods, we must first understand the difference between an interrogation and an interview. The primary difference is that an interview is fact-finding, non-accusatory and usually takes place earlier on in an investigation. The interrogation, on the other hand, is accusatory, involves persuasive techniques and is usually conducted in a controlled environment. The most important aspect of any interrogation is that the interviewer should have, through prior investigation, established a presumption of guilt of the suspect. While in an interview, the primary purpose is to obtain the facts of the case; whereas, the purpose of an interrogation is to obtain a confession.

One issue of concern, however, is the investigative method in which the interviewer established a presumption of the suspect’s guilt.

The methods of investigation used by law enforcement agencies are deductive and inductive. The deductive method refers to a model used when investigators only accept information that fits the initial theory they have formed on how the crime occurred and who the prime suspects are. In this method, adverse or exculpatory evidence can be ignored, thus creating the framework for a narrative the investigator is attempting to achieve. This method can be dangerous in that if the investigator’s theory is based on unvetted sources it can result in targeting the wrong suspect. The inductive method refers to a model similarly used by intelligence analysts, where investigators accept all forms of information supplied during an investigation by various sources. These are then vetted and scored for credibility. If the information provided is credible, but the source may not be, a second source should be sought to corroborate the information.

Once the investigator weighs all information, both inculpatory and exculpatory, several inferences should be made that will allow the investigator to target the most probable suspect. Using the inductive method would enable the investigator to be more objective when considering whether to interrogate a suspect. Once the investigator has decided he or she has sufficient evidence to establish a presumption of guilt, the requirement for interrogation has been met.

What defines coercive questioning during an interrogation? Three factors would have to be considered when determining whether questions asked by an interviewer would be coercive. The first factor is minimization. This is where an interviewer minimizes the culpability of the suspect. An excellent example of this would be if an interviewer tells a suspect that the offense he committed was not a serious one and that the most important thing is to be honest and “man up” because “everyone makes mistakes.” In this method of questioning, the interviewer is appealing to the suspect’s male ego and suggesting that by just admitting to the crime, people would understand and respect his honesty.

The second factor is the suspect’s vulnerability. Examples are as follows:

• Persons who are alcoholics or drug users;

• Persons with mental disabilities;

• A person who may have deep-seeded religious or political belief(s) also may be vulnerable to manipulative tactics or coercive questioning by the interviewer; and

• A low IQ also may affect a person’s ability to articulate answers or not fully understand the questions asked. It also may be the case for persons who speak English as a second language or a child.

The third factor is word and narrative integration by the interviewer. It is where the interviewer changes the word usage of the suspect to support the interviewer’s narrative. An example of this would be changing the suspect’s word usage from “hit” to the word “wacked” or “moved” to “shook,” making the context more dramatic.

It is a combination of these factors that determine how coercive an interrogation may be. Coercive questioning by an interviewer does not necessarily mean there was misconduct by the interviewer. An example of misconduct would be: if a direct or indirect threat were suggested, a promise that the interviewer was not in a position to deliver, or if specific proprietary non-public information about the crime was provided to a suspect before an interrogation.

Although coercive questioning during an interrogation plays a vital role in how false confessions occur, a crucial component to any interrogation is the investigation that preceded it. How the witness interviews were conducted, how photo lineups were presented to witnesses, and how physical evidence was handled. These are critical factors when targeting a probable suspect or forming the presumption of guilt prior to conducting an interrogation-style interview.  


Brian Leslie is a court-qualified expert in coercive interrogation and interview techniques with over 15 years of law enforcement experience, including a term as Chief of Police.


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