In prior posts, I argued for why both examples of actual cases such as Brendan Dassey and the Reid interrogation technique belong in the criminal procedure classroom. As promised, in this third post, I will summarize the Reid technique, relay my experience becoming a Reid-certified interrogator, and preview my thoughts on the technique’s applicability to Dassey.
The Reid interrogation method is based on the Criminal Interrogations & Confessions book. The text is long. Now in its fifth edition, the authors provide 449 pages of instruction. Suffice it to say that a blog post is hardly the place to comprehensively review the technique. But a few points bear mention. The most important thing to understand is that Reid takes a two-part approach to what the Supreme Court broadly construes as a singular interrogation for Miranda purposes.
The full scope of the Reid technique is much broader.
Interview vs. Interrogation
The training manual begins by discussing a “behavior analysis interview” and distinguishing it from an “interrogation.” According to Reid, an interview is a non-accusatory information gathering exercise where the examiner should ask a series of “behavior-provoking questions.” From a suspect’s responses to those questions, the investigator “will generally be able to classify the overall responses to those questions as either fitting the description of an innocent or guilty suspect.”
By contrast, a Reid interrogation commences “when the investigator is reasonably certain of the suspect’s guilt,” which certainty may arise from “the suspect’s behavior during an interview.” It is at that point when, in a controlled environment, the interrogator should display an air of unwavering confidence in the suspect’s guilt and employ the nine-step Reid interrogation technique.
Some steps in the confrontation-based Reid technique are, to my mind, more important than others. Step one, for example, directs the interrogator to “initiate the interrogation with a direct statement indicating absolute certainty in the suspect’s guilt.” Step two directs the interrogator to begin “theme” development. The theme should present the suspect with a moral—not legal—excuse for committing the offense.
The first two steps and those that follow build to step seven. Once there, the interrogator asks the suspect an “alternative question,” which provides the suspect “a choice between two explanations for possible commission of the crime.” No matter the answer, though, the suspect must offer an incriminating response. For example, in a theft case, the interrogator may ask “[d]id you blow that money on booze . . . or did you need it to help out your family?” Once the suspect admits involvement in the particular crime, the remaining steps counsel investigators on how to obtain a fuller confession and reduce it to writing.
When an officer shifts to the interrogation portion of Reid, the officer has made a direct assessment of guilt and is now proceeding to gather evidence to support guilt. Problematically, Miranda may or may not have attached at that critical moment because the Miranda custody standard places insufficient weight on the officer’s decision about the suspect’s guilt. At a bare minimum, Miranda should apply the moment when an officer decides to pursue a confession using the nine-step Reid interrogation method. That’s not to say, though, that Miranda has no application to the behavior analysis interview. In some cases, it’s certainly possible for a suspect to be in custody at that time. In this way, the Miranda custody standard is simultaneously over- and under-inclusive.
There is much to discuss about the technique and the criticism it elicits. But one piece of critical feedback has persisted for years both in legal scholarship and popular media outlets alike: the Reid method produces false confessions.
Hoping to form my own opinion about this criticism, I attended Reid training last year. I learned a lot. I now both agree and disagree that the Reid method produces false confessions. Here is the scene: It’s me and roughly 40 members of law enforcement from varied backgrounds crammed in a medium-sized hotel ballroom last May in downtown Atlanta. I’m the only unarmed attendee.
Over the course of several days, I learned insider Reid techniques related both to interviewing and interrogating, including how to identify verbal and non-verbal behavior indicative of truth or deception, how to move from an interview to an interrogation, and how to develop crime-specific interrogation themes. I also learned that, if you know Reid, you can quite easily identify the precise moment an interrogation begins. In an interview, the interviewer should do very little talking but, in an interrogation, the interrogator should do most of the talking. That makes sense in Reid methodology because the interrogation is designed simply to confirm what the interrogator already assumes—that the suspect is guilty and the interrogation is merely an opportunity for the suspect to tell his side of the story.
After the multi-day training finished, I casually asked for the instructor’s thoughts on why critics believe the Reid method produces false confessions. He explained that it’s not the technique, but rather how investigators use it. He commented that investigators get themselves in trouble by cherry-picking from the interrogation steps or, worse, jumping into an interrogation without first conducting an interview.
I have since arrived at a handful of conclusions about the Reid technique:
- It works. It works in the sense that it does well at eliciting incriminating statements (I did not say truthful or accurate incriminating statements).
- It is powerful and dangerous. Because it works, it should be viewed like a weapon that can fall into the wrong—i.e., poorly trained—investigator’s hands.
- It lacks oversight and continuing education. All of the program’s graduates are apparently qualified to interrogate suspects. Sure, officers may (I hope) undergo additional training, but that’s the point: there is no central oversight body to require additional training. In other words, there are no ABA site teams for interrogators and, moreover, Reid training is not legal training.
- It has a high risk of misuse. Because there is no required additional training—and because the law does not map well with Reid—the risk that interrogators will misuse it is much higher.
- Its misuse can produce false confessions.
Back to Dassey
Reviewing interrogations with this fuller appreciation of the Reid method’s nuances (particularly distinguishing between when an investigator engages in a Reid interview vs. a Reid interrogation), has dramatically altered how I teach Miranda’s protections. And Dassey’s case forcefully illustrates why that classroom change is necessary. Or, more precisely, Dassey’s case demonstrates why knowledge of the Reid technique matters in criminal practice.
The Making a Murderer Netflix documentary series focuses in episode 3 on Dassey’s March 1, 2006, interrogation. And appropriately so. That Reid interrogation is now the subject of Dassey’s petition for Supreme Court review. But the documentary omits other critical Reid interrogations of Dassey that, in my opinion, set the table for Dassey’s March 1 “confession”—particularly law enforcement’s obvious Reid interrogations of Dassey on Nov. 6, 2005, and three interrogations on Feb. 27, 2006. Dassey’s first attorney, apparently with no knowledge of interrogation tactics, conceded that those interrogations alongside the March 1 interrogation were non-custodial. But his doing so proves that he was not Reid-savvy.
More on the relationship between Reid and the interrogations unexplored by Making a Murderer in my next post.