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How Police Interrogation Works

A Real Interrogation

On September 1, 2003, Detective Victor Lauria of the Novi Police Department in Detroit, Michigan, used his training in the Reid technique to interrogate Nikole Michelle Frederick. Frederick's two-year-old step daughter, Ann Marie, was brought to the emergency room near death, with obvious signs of extensive child abuse. Frederick was her primary caretaker and was watching Ann Marie in the time before the trip to the hospital. The interrogation took place over two days, with Frederick being charged with the crime immediately following the first sit-down.

Lauria began with a simple interview, just talking in a non-threatening way to establish Frederick's baseline reactions:

    Lauria: How would you rate yourself as a mother?
    Frederick: Um, I think I'm, I'm pretty good. I mean I, I am a little bad with being stern and stricter you know, letting them get away with things.
    Lauria: How would you describe Ann Marie?
    Frederick: She was a very hard baby. She would, uh, cry all the time. Always wanted to be held ... I mean Annie just, I mean she always looks like she's beaten. She's always climbing or you know. I always can see a little bit of bruising and scrapes or whatever on her back. Her shins are always bruised.

Since Frederick appeared to be making excuses for Ann Marie's injuries and setting up a justification -- "She was a very hard baby" -- and since she was taking care of Ann Marie when the injuries occurred, Lauria predicted guilt and began interrogating her. He proceeded to subtle confrontation, letting Frederick know how she would be caught:

    Lauria: There's a whole line of study in police work that can determine how injuries occur and how old the injuries are.
    Frederick: ... I don't even think we'll find out exactly what happened because the only one that really knows is her and it's gonna be awfully hard trying to get her to say if anything happened, you know. I'm not trying to be rude or anything, I was just wondering how long this is going to take.
    Lauria: Well, like I said, one of the things we're able to do with those [bruises] is we can date bruises based upon you know whether they're new bruises just coming in, or whether they're bruises that are already starting to heal because, you know, doctors and forensic scientists and pathologists study those type of things...
    Frederick: Okay.
    Lauria: Can you think of any reason why they would determine that those bruises were caused in the last 24 hours and that somebody would suspect that you did this?
    Frederick: Um, other than that I was there, no.


    Lauria: Do you suspect anybody of doing this?
    Frederick: No, I don't. And that's what I'm saying, and I, I'm having a hard time believing that it was inflicted on her because, like I said, we would have heard something too, you know...
    Lauria: Out of all the people in the house that were there or came in last night, list all the people that you would vouch for that you would say absolutely would not do something to hurt Ann Marie.
    Frederick: ... I know John wouldn't do it. I honestly don't think Brian would do it.
    Lauria: Who'd vouch for you?
    Frederick: Um, probably John. But see like I don't, I don't necessarily, uh, believe what the doctor's saying and how they were inflicted, whatever.

Five Techniques of Surviving a Police Interrogation (Without Confessing)

Taken from freeBEAGLES' recommendations for animal rights' activists (and others) on how to make it through a police interrogation without incriminating themselves or their peers:

Remain silent.

Remain silent.

Imagine the words "I invoke my right to remain silent" painted on the wall, and stare at them throughout the interrogation.

Momentarily break your silence to ask for counsel.

Cultivate hatred for your interrogator so you don't fall into his traps and start talking.

Detective Lauria began developing a theme about an out-of-control situation -- Frederick had not premeditated the abuse, she just hadn't been thinking clearly. But Frederick didn't like that theme. She asked the detective why he wasn't believing her story. Lauria then switched to an out-of-control "split second" in which Frederick had hurt Ann Marie. He explained that Ann Marie's injuries were definitely not from a fall. Someone else had inflicted them, possibly in a "split second" of irrationality. Frederick was listening now, apparently clinging to the "split second" qualification. Lauria further developed the theme by bringing up Ann Marie's difficult nature and how hard she was to care for -- blaming the victim, which Frederick had already shown a tendency toward. Frederick began nodding her head, and Lauria set up an alternative. He told Frederick that "without an explanation of what happened people would assume the worst." The implied contrast had already been set up: a cold-blooded, vicious attack on a toddler versus a momentary loss of self-control when dealing with a difficult child. The approach worked. According to Lauria's account:

    Over two days of questioning Frederick never asked how Ann Marie was doing. Near the end of the interview I pointed this out to her. She tried to convince me that she had asked several times about Ann Marie's injuries. She then asked me for an update in her condition. I told her that Ann Marie was brain dead and that she was probably not going to survive. Frederick stated "Oh my God. I'm gonna go for murder." I then spent another 45 minutes with various themes in an attempt to get further information. After several attempts at denying any further knowledge or involvement in causing the injuries to Ann Marie she admitted to shaking her. After admitting to shaking her, Frederick broke down and cried. She then said "I killed that little girl. I killed that little girl."

Ann Marie died of her injuries, and Nikole Michelle Frederick stood trial for First Degree Felony Murder. She was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Getting a guilty suspect to confess is the best way to ensure she'll be found guilty at trial and serve time for the crime she committed. The problem is that while a confession looks really good in court, it's not an infallible indicator of guilt. That's a big part of the controversy surrounding police interrogation tactics.