Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
Season 9 Episode 8
Aired on April 17, 2022
Main segment: Police Interrogations
Other segments: Dr. Oz’s U.S. Senate campaign
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John: Our main story tonight contains police interrogations. They are a staple of countless tv shows including might not — once you might not expect.
Did you kill your father with this axe?
No, I didn’t.
Lie to me again and I will arrest you for murder, capisce?
Honey, I’d like a mineral water, no ice.
And I’d like your balls in a blender but ain’t like a b*tch.
No, you’re not understanding me. I want you to confess!
John: Holy shit. Pinkie Pie’s about to fuck that dragon up! I was not expecting a clip from My Little Pony to look like a deleted scene from Training Day, but you can see why interrogation scenes are so popular on TV. They’re inherently dramatic and can result in a confession moving the story along but it’s not just audiences who find them compelling. Juries do too. Confessions are viewed as the gold standard when it comes when indicator of guilt as they can apparently be more persuasive than even DNA evidence. Listen to all these jurors in high-profile trials extending the evidence that convict them — convince them to convict.
He felt no one would confess three times if they didn’t do it.
He could have continued to deny it. If you did not hurt that baby, you would go to your grave saying “no I didn’t.”
It was very hard to imagine why anybody would make up something that not only incriminate them but is full of details that sound like they actually happened.
John: Yeah, confessions are wildly persuasive because we think one of those things that only guilty people do. Like posting a apology or refusing to answer any of Ronan Farrow’s questions. In all those juror cases, the confession later turned out to be false. The last juror from the case of the Central Park Five, the now known The Exonerated Five. In fact, of all the convictions that have been overturned through DNA testing 29% involved false confessions and you may find that hard to believe because it can be very hard to comprehend how someone could confess to something they didn’t do. Just watch Lester Holt struggle to get his head around it while talking to a journalist who’ve covered a false confession case.
The more I investigated it the more I came to believe he might be telling you the truth. There’s not a shred of forensic physical evidence.
Yeah, like most people you can’t possibly fathom admitting you did something that you didn’t do.
Nobody does that.
Nobody would think they’re capable of doing it, but the truth is a skilled interrogator could probably get you or I to admit we kidnapped the Lindbergh baby.
John: Exactly. Honestly, a skilled interrogator could probably even get me to admit I am the Lindbergh baby. It does kind of make sense considering that this body type is a physique best described as 92-year-old dead baby. The truth is there are a number of reasons an innocent person might confess to something they didn’t do, and a lot of that comes down to what happens in a police interrogation room, so tonight let’s talk about police interrogations, what tactics they use and how damaging they can be particularly for the innocent. And let’s start with some history here. Because it used to be police could basically torture people to get confessions, a practice what came to be known as using the ‘third degree’. But in 1936 the Supreme Court declared physical coercion unconstitutional, meaning that Police departments had to adopt new techniques and it says something for their early attempts to do this feature some pretty basic instructions like in this film from the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Look the suspect in the eyes to observe eye movements and physical changes that might indicate deception. If you can’t look him in the eyes, watch an imaginary x on the forehead or nose. It’s the same effect. Once deception is detected you know you’re on the right track.
John: Okay, hold on. Was drawing the x really necessary there? Were they genuinely worried their officers wouldn’t know how to look at a forehead without visual representation? Because if they cannot spot a forehead, I’d argue maybe they should not be trusted to spot a criminal. But eventually one particular approach became the standard, The Reid Technique, named after one of its creators, John E. Reid, former Chicago Police officer turned polygraph expert. He formed a training firm that now claims to have trained “hundreds of thousands of investigators,” and has “influenced nearly every aspect of modern police interrogations.” The Reid techniques become one of those things that just culturally comes with being a cop, you know, like their fondness for donuts or their complicity in the perpetuation of state-sponsored violence. And when it comes to questioning suspects there are two major phases to the Reid Technique, the interview where you determine whether someone is a suspect and the interrogation where you try to get them to confess. Now, in the interview stage, the goal is to gauge how truthful the answers you’re getting are. The approach is similar to a lie detector test. You essentially start with some basic questions to set a baseline and then moved to the so-called behavior provoking questions when you analyze the suspect’s verbal and – crucially – non-verbal behavior. This retraining film, for instance, explains how barrier postures like crossing your arms are a sign that you’re lying…
The next two illustrations we’re going to see, each subject moves into a barrier posture after they were asked the critical question.
Why do you think Bob said he saw you selling marijuana?
Hey, come on. How should I know? I mean, who knows why people say things. I sure don’t.
Mark, have you ever thought about sexually touching a child.
No, not seriously.
John: Now… hold on. First, let’s acknowledge those are clearly community theater actors trying their hardest to convey guilt and we should give the first actress her flowers because she showed up to that non-union gig ready to work. As for this guy, he took a pretty spot on Kevin Spacey impression there between the facial resemblance, the haircut and the unconvincing denials of sexual attraction to children. He is really nailing it and I know that looks dated but it’s still very much in use; that video is available for purchase right now on Reid’s website. It was $100 and it was not remotely worth it. But there’s a big issue with relying on that sort of behavioral analysis because while Reid claims investigators trained in their technique have shown an average accuracy of 83% in identifying deceptive subjects, the truth is much less impressive as this retired homicide investor explains.
The Reid people admit that it’s not based on any science whatsoever, just based on their own observations. The real science says it’s baloney. It doesn’t work. And when they’ve done experiments with it, they pretty much show that the accuracy is like flipping a coin. It’s 50/50.
John: Right. It’s basically chance. It’s got around the same accuracy as a BuzzFeed quiz: “Answer 17 questions about pizza and we’ll tell you which Gilmore Girl you are.” Wait, I’m a Rory?!? What the fuck are you talking about, BuzzFeed? I’m a Lorelei all day, I talk fast, I carry the weight of the world on my shoulders and God do I look good in a pea coat. And I have to tell you, Reid and associates will insist that their interview technique is part of an overall approach that works if you just follow all the instructions in their 400-page manual to the letter but this thing is so full of caveats and outright contradictions you can find support in it for nearly any conclusion that you want to reach. For instance, when it comes to eye contact, it advises that when a person is being less than honest he may not maintain direct eye contact but also others may overcompensate by staring, meaning if you have eyes… you’re basically fucked! And I’m not saying that Reid is the only problem here. There’s a whole industry of consultants who supposedly train cops to spot liars but it’s all bullshit: “…years of research has demonstrated that behavioral cues like eye blinking and arm crossing are simply not reliable indicators of deception,” which does make sense. People move their bodies in all sorts of ways when they are telling the truth or not. In fact the only truly honest body movement that humans are capable of is when someone accidentally walks through a spider web. That’s it. Then and only then are your gestures completely truthful and void of presence of — fucking shit! So, thanks to this junk science, police can essentially assure themselves of their own certainties and if they have decided you’re guilty, you’re in big trouble because that’s when the interrogation begins and while they will say they are looking for the truth, Reid trains officers to steer the conversation away from anything that’s not a confession.
Many guilty people introduce their denials with permission phrases such as “can I say one thing?” “Would you just listen to me?” “But sir, if I could only explain.” When the interrogator hears those phrase it’s important to interject yourself and stop a person from continuing because if you let him talk, he’ll say the words “I didn’t do it.” And the more often a person says they didn’t do it, the more difficult it becomes for us to get a confession.
John: Oh, yes, the telltale signs of guilt. “Would you please listen to me? Can I explain? And I’m telling you I didn’t do it.” If an investigator is trying to get you to confess, they can grind you down. Interrogations can last from a couple hours to double digits. One study of false confessions found they came after an average of 16.3 hours of questioning, which can be utterly exhausting. Innocent people can wind up confessing just to escape the stress of that situation. That was the case with Robert Davis who at just 18 was suspected of double murder and interrogated for over five hours.
Robert: What can I say that I did to get me out of this? When will I go home? When will I go home today? Will I go home now?
Det. Snead: I can’t promise you. Look, you work with me and I’ll do everything I can to make sure your mom — and we can get you — maybe get you home. […] Robert, I’m gonna come straight out and tell you what I was — what — what I’m getting. All right? Since you’re not gonna tell me… […] You stabbed that woman.
Robert: I stabbed her.
Det. Snead: You stabbed her, didn’t you?
Robert: One — one or two times. Do you think by me telling you this, it’s gonna get me home tonight?
Det. Snead: Tonight?
Det. Snead: Today? I doubt it…
Robert: Well, then why am I lying about all this to you, just so I can go home? I am lying to you.
Det. Snead: You’re not lying.
Robert: I am lying to you. I am lying to you full front — full front to your face. I am lying to you.
John: Yeah, he lied about stabbing someone and then immediately admitted he lied but by that point it was too late. He actually went to prison for 13 years before being exonerated. The notion that people crack under pressure and falsely confess really shouldn’t be that hard to understand. It’s a concept that even children’s cartoons get because remember that “My Little Pony” scene from earlier? This is how it continued.
No, no, no, no!
What do you want to hear? Tell me what you want me to say and I’ll say it.
John: Tell me what you want me to say and I’ll say it. I kidnapped the Lindbergh baby. Is that what you want to hear, you pink psycho? And the thing is people might assume that even if they falsely confess they can later recant and the real evidence will prevail and clear them but that’s actually very unlikely because as soon as the police get a confession, thorough investigations tend to stop and at this point I’m going to answer the question you may have had for a while now. Why don’t people just invoke their constitutional right to an attorney? Well, the truth is “approximately 80% or more—waive their Miranda rights and willingly submit to police interrogation” for a number of understandable reasons. Sometimes people think “I don’t need a lawyer, I didn’t do anything.” Or they believe they’re only being brought in as a witness and not a suspect. But not having a lawyer makes you incredibly vulnerable, because for one thing: a lawyer might clue you in to an absolutely insane power that police in America have been given by the Supreme Court.
In the United States a detective can legally lie about the evidence to a suspect. It is lawful for detectives to turn to a suspect and say “you say you didn’t do this but we’ve got your fingerprints on the murder weapon.” Or “we have a victim who had hair in her grasp and we tested the hair. It’s yours.” Or “the shoe prints we found at the scene are yours.” Or “the polygraph you wanted to take, you failed it.”
John: It’s true. The police in this country can flat out lie to you to make you think you have no choice but to confess and some of the lies they tell are simply ridiculous. An investigator in Florida told a suspect they had a laser, the kind that you shoot on “Star Wars,” and with it they can actually lift fingerprints off bodies. A technology that, to be clear, does not exist. Although having said that, I’m now pretty sure that we’re just one bad pitch meeting away from the “Star Wars” laser getting its own ten episode series on Disney Plus. The laser will be voiced by Oscar Isaac and will all come. Now, allowing the police to lie to suspects is crazy. Most countries do not allow it and for good reason. It is far too powerful a tool. Remember Robert Davis. It might still be hard for you to imagine why he confessed to doing something that he didn’t do but look at what the interrogator was claiming in that room.
Det. Snead: I’ve got evidence out the ass… […] Dust is made up of mostly of — human dead skin. That can be picked up. That DNA… […] I’m not gonna be able to keep you from the worst, Robert. If you don’t talk to me, I can’t keep you from the worst.
Robert: I wasn’t there.
Det. Snead: G–dammit, Robert, you were. You were there. The evidence shows you where there. The evidence shows it. I can’t lie about the evidence.
John: I can’t lie about the evidence? He lied as he lied about the evidence and did it gesturing with all the theatrical nuance of a high schooler auditioning for “A Few Good Men.” The overwhelming pressure of a police interrogation coupled with their ability to invent evidence can actually make people question their own memories. That happened with Christopher Tapp who served 20 years in prison for a murder he did not commit and was heavily manipulated during his interrogation.
Christopher Tapp [during interrogation]: I wasn’t there. […] the way I think you’re telling it to me is like I was there.
Christopher Tapp: The police told me a few times if there was something that horrific, you would definitely hide it and it’d go in your subconscious.
Detective [during interrogation]: It’s just like me, some of the brutal stuff that we see out on the streets… my mind shuts down on me because I don’t want to remember it…
Christopher Tapp: I started second-guessing myself during all of this. I started to not believe in myself or who I was.
Christopher Tapp [during interrogation]: I don’t know. Because right now everything I’ve been saying, what I think is right in my head, it’s been wrong.
John: That is terrible and it’s more than a little infuriating how that investigator convinces him of doubting his own memory by making it seem like it happens all the time. You half expect him to say “you know how you can’t remember if it was The Berenstein Bears or Berenstain Bears or if Shaq was in a movie called “Shazaam” or maybe it was Sinbad and the movie was actually called “Kazaam.” That’s what your brain is doing right now but with murder. Brains are weird, huh. All these tactics are incredibly manipulative and they work especially well on certain people. Research shows false confessions were a factor in 34% of cases in which children were wrongly convicted and a stunning 69% of cases in which people with mental illness or intellectual disabilities were later exonerated and looked, there are some limits on what police can do. Some judges won’t allow a confession if the police promised you leniency in exchange for it but many cops walk right up to that line by suggesting a confession might use prison time or spare you the death penalty. You saw that happen with Robert Davis when an officer told him he could keep him from the worse. Also police are told not to feed you information about the crime that is not publicly available as it’s obviously damning for a jury to hear that you knew details only the guilty party would know but that happens all the time too. One study of DNA exonerations found that 94% of false confessions were contaminated by allegedly inside information. And the thing is even if police engage in these tactics, crucially the jury may only see the confession, not the interrogation that led up to it, only 30 states require the recording of interrogations at all and in the rest it’s up to the police who might only record the confession. That’s it. And you just cannot get the full story from seeing one short clip. Imagine if the only clip that you had ever seen of the show “One Tree Hill” was this:
[Clip from “One Tree Hill” where a dog straight-up eats Dan Scott’s transplant heart]
John: Do you want to know what “One Tree Hill” is about? It’s about a high school basketball team. You’d have no way of knowing that from that clip. All you would know was that it contained the most perfect 20 seconds of television that has ever existed. The problem with police interrogations right now is the same problem we have with policing at large. They’re emboldened to act however they’d like in a system where they hold an undue amount of power with very few protections for civilians especially the most vulnerable because there can be little to no consequences for extracting a false confession. Just listen to this man, who was a 19-year-old former special education student, at the time of his arrest for raping and murdering a woman. After being interrogated over the course of four days, including—fun fact—two polygraphs conducted by Reid associates, he confessed under pressure and spent nearly 20 years in prison until finally being exonerated by DNA.
Juan Rivera: All of the officers that worked on my case as well as state’s attorneys, they’ve all retired with a pension, a full pension, there was no repercussion, no retribution, no criminal charges. Nothing. They actually exceeded in their job. They retired as captains, majors, lieutenants. The State’s attorney Michael Waller retired and they gave him a plaque for a good job.
John: That is maddening. That state attorney certainly doesn’t deserve a Good Job plaque unless it came with another drop-down plaque that read “at fucking up innocent people’s lives, your monumental asshole.” And what I’ve spent tonight showing you people who were exonerated, there are still many incarcerated people fighting convictions that have every hallmark of a false confession like Brandon Dassey from making a murderer who was 16 when he confessed to a murder he could not describe. And Melissa Lucio, whose incredibly manipulative interrogation we featured in our wrongful convictions piece and it was set to be executed in just ten days. So what can we do. Well, we should absolutely require all interrogations to be recorded in their entirety so juries have the full context of what happened in that room. We should also make it illegal for police to lie to suspects because it is madness that they are currently allowed to do that. And there’s actually a growing movement for some reform here. These three states [Oregon, Illinois, Utah] have now banned police from lying to juvenile suspects, and New York has introduced legislation that would ban lying to all suspects and require courts to evaluate the reliability of confession evidence before allowing it to be used. And that should be adopted absolutely everywhere. And if you’re thinking “hold on John, how will investigators get guilty people to confess if they can’t intimidate or lied to them?” Well, not to be a total bitch but their job is literally to investigate so maybe they could try doing some of that! Also, you can productively interrogate someone without lying to them. The U.K. now uses something called the PEACE method where they ask open-ended questions and let the suspect give their own account and I’m not saying that system is perfect. It clearly isn’t, among other things they still haven’t gotten the Queen to confess to killing Diana on camera but it’s at least a start. And in the meantime, there’s actually a lot of cultural conditioning regarding police interrogations that we need to start undoing because think about it: how many dramas have you seen on TV where roughing up the bad guy led to solving the crime. How many shows have there been where the bad guy seemed guilty and the officers gut feeling was confirmed by the end of the episode? Our misconceptions about police interrogations have been hammered in by crime dramas and they’ve been hammered in deep. Perhaps one small way to help undo that damage is for shows to present a slightly more accurate picture of what can really happen in that room.
[Narrator] This fall, meet two tough cops, expert interrogators.
[Narrator] Who won’t take no for an answer.
You son of a bitch. You’re guilty. You dirty rat bastard!
What are you talking about?
You know what we’re talking about. The murder in the alley.
I didn’t do it.
No, no, no. I can’t hear that. We cannot hear you say that.
[Narrator] They are highly trained.
You are lying.
No, I’m not.
Oh, you looked away. That is lying.
Now you’re staring. That’s lying too. More lies.
[Narrator] And incredibly skilled.
What are you doing?
Making eye contact.
No you are not.
Are you looking at my forehead?
[Narrator] And they’ll say anything to get what they need.
Have you seen Rogue One?
The “Star Wars” movie?
“Star Wars” film!
I think I saw it once, yeah.
You’re probably familiar with lightsabers. Probably less familiar with the fact that we have them and they have the ability to pull DNA from a dead body with a single [he makes the sound of the lightsaber] I cannot lie about this.
It’s true. He can’t lie about the [he makes the sound of the lightsaber].
[Narrator] And I mean anything.
You ever get to work and not remember any of your commute? Maybe it was like that. It was murder.
Is this dress black and blue or gold and white?
You’ve got two choices. Confess to one count of murder two or two counts of murder one.
You’ve got to help us help you. Help us help you help us convict you.
Murder says what?
Oh, that counts! That counts!
Oh, no. Are you allergic to your own victim?
Did you just blow a dead body on me? Did you just blow a dead body on me?
I’ve got evidence coming out of every hole of my body.
Those can’t be the only choices.
One count of murder!
Guys, it’s been 15 and a half hours. I can’t take much more of this.
Well, you know, if you help me out a little bit I can make sure you get to sleep in your own bed tonight.
Fine. I did it.
Ace in the hole baby!
Sorry about the delay fellas. Here is your perp. We don’t need anymore suspects. The one you brought us yesterday just confessed.
But this was the guy you’re supposed to interrogate yesterday.
Who the hell is this?
I just came in here to charge my phone.
Look at that.
Oh, you’re still going to jail.
His phone battery dies and he goes to prison.
“Going to charge my phone in the interrogation room.”
Who does that? Hey, don’t forget your phone.
[Narrator] The confess-tigators.
Hey, it ain’t ruining my life.
John: That’s our show. Thanks so much for watching. We are off next week. Good night.
The victim says you did it. Are you calling the victim a liar?
That never happens.