Are Cook County's Interrogation Techniques Foolproof? The Reid Technique Examined

Are Cook County's Interrogation Techniques Foolproof? The Reid Technique Examined

Produced by HuffPost's Eyes & Ears Citizen Journalism Unit

Following his January 14 release from prison, convicted murderer Michael Tillman became the fourth of former Chicago Police Commander John Burge's torture victims to be freed from their wrongful incarceration. Tillman is from a group of approximately 135 African American men and women who were allegedly tortured under Burge's direction between 1972 and 1993. During his interrogation, Tillman was allegedly beaten with a phone book, punched in the stomach until he vomited blood and waterboarded with soda. He confessed to the 1986 rape and murder of mail clerk Betty Howard, subsequently serving 24 years in prison for crimes he did not commit.

Jon Burge's trial is scheduled to begin in May, and his story has highlighted the problem of false confessions within the Illinois judicial system, leading some to question what tactics are acceptable for securing confessions from suspects who deny their involvement.

Psychological interrogations, like the Reid Technique, are Cook County's legal alternative to physical violence. The "Reid Technique of Interviewing," developed by John E. Reid and Associates, is the most commonly used interrogation program in the United States. The encourage investigators to use flattery, false compassion and a simulated justification of the motive to convince suspected offenders to confess. The investigator is also urged to interrupt denials before they start and minimize the severity of the crime in order to minimize the suspect's perception of the punishment.

Concurrent with their questioning, the investigator examines the suspect's nonverbal behavior. Reid relies on the idea that communication through spoken word is enhanced by speech hesitancy, tears, slouching posture, frequent hand gestures, apparent anxiety or fear and implied disinterest. These are to be interpreted as signs of guilt.

The ultimate goal of the Reid steps is an admission of guilt and a detailed "post-admission narrative"--a full confession.

The technique is billed as false confession proof, but some feel that suspects can be coerced into a false confession without visible bruises.

Steven Drizin, Legal Director of Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions, does not see psychological interrogations as a solution to the problems revealed by the Burge case. "The fact of the matter is, one need not torture a suspect to order to get a false confession from him," Drizin said. "And that has been the most powerful lesson of the DNA revolution. These psychological interrogation techniques, which were born out of a desire to professionalize police officers and to minimize the risk of false confessions that had occurred when police officers were using physical abuse and extreme psychological abuse to get confessions, do in fact contribute to the false confession problem."

The Reid methods are designed with the understanding that dealings with criminal suspects, innocent or guilty, are inevitably going to occur on "a somewhat lower moral plane than that upon which ethical, law-abiding citizens are expected to conduct their everyday affairs," according to Reid's textbook, "Criminal Interrogations and Confessions" written by Fred. E Inbau. Therefore, "both "fair" and "unfair" interrogation practices are permissible," but nothing should influence an innocent person to confess, according to the text.

Detective Mike Mazurkiewicz of the Glenview Police Department, an investigator trained with the Reid Technique, explains the interrogation's power, saying, "Basically everything comes down to breaking down the suspect and giving them an excuse that is favorable to society to get them to talk to you about it. If you can do that, if you can find the weak spot--because everybody has one--they're gonna talk. Everybody has a weak spot."

Illinois requires that only homicide interrogations be videotaped, due to the high stakes associated with murder trials. Regardless of what crime is being investigated, however, the same technique is applied--and the evidentiary strength of a confession in a courtroom is unmatched--there is nothing more powerful in a court of law, Drizin said.

"There are a number of examples where juries have convicted men despite the fact that DNA evidence suggests that they're absolutely innocent," Drizin said. "Hopefully that will change as juries get more accustomed to science, but because confessions are so counter-intuitive--that is because juries, like people in the general public, can't understand why anybody would confess to a crime they didn't commit--they tend to rely heavily on confession evidence to convict."

In addition to increased jury understanding of what suspects are up against in the interrogation room, these tools cannot be used without extensive evidence collection and care during questioning.

Drizin said that the primary cause of false confession is "contamination"--the unintentional feeding of information about a crime to a suspect, details that only the true criminal could know.

Reid and Associates President Joseph Buckley argues that the potency of the Reid Technique must be supported by vigilance on the part of the investigator.

"The key to assessing the credibility of any confession is to develop corroboration," Buckley said in an email.

Mazurkiewicz said that he always continues collecting evidence after a confession, although he says that things may be different for a police department covering a city like Chicago with a much larger caseload.

Drizin said he hopes the Burge case reminds jurors that all evidence deserves scrutiny.

"Now that video recording of confessions is becoming much more common, I think that the Reid Technique and other psychological techniques are going to get a much closer look by courts," he said.

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