Analyzing Statements: The Key to Detecting Deception

Illustration of a suspect under a magnifying glass.

Law enforcement officers from across Texas learned a new investigative technique at the Law Enforcement Management Institute of Texas to better analyze statements by victims, witnesses and suspects.

Officers from municipal departments, school districts and college campuses participated in the one day training on Forensic Statement Analysis presented by Richard Whitehead, a 30-year veteran of the Travis County Sheriff’s Office and Baytown Police Department. He provided tips on how to detect deception and to identify hidden information in a person’s written or spoken statements.

“It’s just another tool for their investigative toolbox,” said Whitehead. “It makes their job easier. It makes the interview much more productive.”

Richard Whitehead
Richard Whitehead
Unlike handwriting analysis which examines the characteristics of writing, forensic statement analysis dissects the written or spoken word for linguistic signals. To avoid the editing of statements, Whitehead suggests that statements should be handwritten by the victim, witness or suspect with a pen or transcribed verbatim from a recording. The analysis begins by establishing a normal pattern of writing and then looking for deviations. Therefore, the statement should not only include recollections from the specific criminal event, but also information on what happened during the rest of the day.

“When we try and deceive, we chose our words differently, and it leaks out onto the page,” said Whitehead. “Everybody edits and they say what they think is important. Most people will not lie directly, but will leave out important facts.”

Research has been done in the fields of language, psychology and deception detection to identify linguistic signals used in forensic statement analysis. These signals include lack of conviction, extraneous statements, order of appearance, verbs, pronouns, changes in language or word choice, the use of editing phrases and time. Many of these techniques can be used not only in police statements, but in those given to the media. Statements should be analyzed before interviews take place and should be used to develop questions using the suspect’s word against them in an effort to get a confession.

Photo of man's hand writing a statement.Interviews that include a lack of conviction, with phases such as I think, I believe or kind of, may indicate an attempt to avoid accountability. Statements that include a lot of ancillary information not pertinent to the crime may be an attempt to justify actions or mislead, Whitehead said.

Since the crime has occurred, most statements use the past tense to describe the actions involved. If the person changes to the present tense at some point during the statement, it may indicate that they are fabricating that portion of their story.

People generally appear in the statement in their order of importance to the writer. Pronouns can help to show the degree of the writer’s involvement (e.g., his vs. ours or I vs. we), the nature of relationships (e.g., we vs. he and others); tension by absence of the use of pronouns (e.g., got up. ate breakfast.) or distancing by disappearance (e.g., my house vs. the house).

Word choice also can be telling, including the nouns, verbs, pronouns and phrases used. While the parents of a missing child generally use endearing terms such as my babies, my kids and always talk about their children in the present tense, those who may have been involved in the disappearance or murder often will use more formal, distance terms, like “the children,” or “they,” or phrases like they were missing instead of stolen or died instead of were murdered. They also may refer to their children in the past tense.

Picture of a man interviewing someone with a paper in his hand.Terms, such as after, later, next, began, started or continued, often indicate missing information. Investigators also should mark the number of lines in victim and witness statements for elements that occurred before, during and after the crime. Each section should account for roughly one-third of the statement, and large variations should be suspect. Finally, with victim statements, real crime victims spend about 25 percent of their time writing the introduction, 50 percent on the main event and 25 percent on the conclusion. False statements generally vary greatly from that timetable, with more time spent on the introduction, little on the event and little or no time spent on the conclusion.

Forensic statement analysis is time consuming and should only be used on those cases that raise the suspicion of investigators, Whitehead said.

“These are for those cases that don’t pass the smell test,” said Whitehead. “Words convey meaning. Those that convey memory use the past tense, are consistence, are more detailed and require less energy. Those who are trying to convince you have created a story, use present tense, have fewer and inconsistent details, and it requires more energy.”

For more information about Forensic Statement Analysis, visit Whitehead’s Web site at www.rickwhitehead.com.

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